A matter of lethal injection or shooting?

4 Jan

According to an AP article, China will now expand the use of lethal injections and replace them with gun shooting as the method of execution for those sentenced to death. Not music to the ears of anti-death penalty advocates or the victims of state sanctioned murder. The report quoted Jiang Xingchang, vice president of the Supreme People’s Court, in China Daily, a national paper, that the proposed method “is considered more humane.”

Contrary to popular beliefs, Lethal Injection is not as humane as it is made out to be. The recent well-known case in which Puerto Rican-born Angel Diaz, executed in the state of Texas, on 13 December 2006, proved the point. His death took more than twice the usual time of 15 minutes (34 minutes to be exact), in which it was confirmed by a later autopsy, that the injections had been wrongly administered. According to his lawyer, Diaz “continued to move and mouth words more than 20 minutes after the initial dose.”

Amnesty International (AI) has released a report on execution by the method of lethal injection, arguing that it is neither foolproof nor less cruel. The NGO opposes death penalty in all circumstances as it violates the right to life; and the right not to be exposed to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The report documented cases whereby lethal injection is proven to cause suffering to the executed. In the case of Lloyd Lafevers, who was sentenced to death in Oklahoma on 10 December 2001, it was reported that Lyod “began making gasping sounds and started convulsing three minutes after the lethal injection commenced and ceased moving after the 12th convulsion.” Bert L Hunter, executed in Missouri on 28 June 2000 was reported to have “a reaction to the lethal drugs, repeatedly coughing and gasping for air before he lapsed into unconsciousness.”

A website and project by the Death Penalty Clinic at U.C. Berkeley School of Law that documents information on legal injection has revealed similar botched executions cases. Botched executions refer to executions that cause “the individual to suffer excruciating and protracted pain that is apparent to witnesses and documented by post-mortem evidence such as photographs and autopsy reports.”

In the execution of Ricky Rector in 1992, executioners, unable to find a vein in his arm, “made a two-inch incision in his arm in an attempt to locate a vein. Rector was heard moaning throughout the 50 minute execution.” The execution of Joseph Lewis Clark in 2006, Ohio, saw technicians sticking the man with IV needles for 19 times. His execution took 90 minutes and an autopsy revealed, “the lethal chemicals had been injected outside of Mr. Clark’s veins.”

In the AI report, the NGO raises three particular concerns with regards to lethal injection. Firstly, that as a method, it disregards the suffering inflicted on prisoners as it focuses on presumed reduction in pain suffered. Secondly, the method has potential to cause physical suffering. Lastly, health personnel involved in the process are prohibited to do so by their code of ethics.

With regards to the last aspect, World and American medical associations have all called on healthcare professionals not to be involved in any execution process.

For example, the World Medical Association states in 2000 “it is unethical for physicians to participate in capital punishment, in any way, or during any step of the execution process”. In 1996, the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), in its Declaration of Madrid, states, “Under no circumstances should psychiatrists participate in legally authorized executions nor participate in assessments of competency to be executed.” In its code of ethics, the American College of Physicians states, “Participation by physicians in the execution of prisoners except to certify death is unethical.”

Even if pro-death penalty advocates can find ways to make lethal injection or any other methods causing less pain to those those sentenced to death, they will invariably need the expertise of the healthcare profession. And since, such professionals are trained to save, not take away lives, they cannot participate in such a process. Interviewing doctors and nurses who has taken part in executions, Dr. Gawande argues in an article, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, that, ” each of us has a duty not to follow rules and laws blindly. In medicine, we face conflicts about what the right and best actions are in all kinds of areas… All have been the subject of professional rules and government regulation, and at times those rules and regulations will be wrong. We will then be called on to make a choice. We must do our best to choose intelligently and wisely.” Thought-provoking words.

Coming back to China, the most mind boggling thought of its courts switching to lethal injection can be found in the AI report. It documented that windowless, mobile execution vans, converted from 24 seater buses, have been distributed to various locations for use. Each van contains “a metal bed on which the prisoner is strapped down.” The description of the vehicle conjures images of secretive torture chambers.

The execution process being described, is swift and meticulously calculated:

Once the doctor attaches the needle, a police officer presses a button and an automatic syringe inserts the lethal drug into the prisoner’s vein. The execution can be watched on a video monitor next to the driver’s seat and can be videotaped if required.

Most disturbing is the immediate execution of prisoners, once convicted, leaving no room for higher appeals or future deliberations:

In December 2003, the Supreme People’s Court urged all courts throughout China to purchase mobile execution chambers “that can put to death convicted criminals immediately after sentencing”.

The execution process and figures continue to be shrouded in secrecy for fear of international condemnation while the increase of using lethal injections is more cause for worry as it means that executions are likely to be carried out faster due to immediate sentencing.

The number of vans now in use is not known, although a US newspaper reported in 2006 that more than 40 were deployed. The proportion of executions carried out by lethal injection is also a secret. A researcher on the death penalty at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was reported to have said that the majority of executions continue to be by shooting although “the use of injections has grown in recent years, and may have reached 40 per cent.”

There is nothing humane about using lethal injections to execute those on death row, contrary to what the Chinese would like the public to believe. While the core principle for the anti-death penalty advocate is to condemn this form of punishment in any circumstances, its function also includes debunking propagated myths that methods such as lethal injections, cause less pain or does not constitute torture.

As such, it is not so much whether to use lethal injections or shooting. The death penalty debate, is hence, literally, of life and death.



1. Florida ends death penalty halt, BBC, 18 July 2007

2. Execution by lethal injection, A quarter century of state poisoning, Amnesty International US, extracted on 3 Jan 2008

3. lethalinjection.org, Baze v. Rees Q & A, extracted on 3 Janurary 2008

4. When Law and Ethics Collide — Why Physicians Participate in Executions, The New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 354:1221-1229, 23 March 2006, Number 12, Atul Gawande


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