Lethal Injection: 30 Years of Hypocrisy

lethal injection

TEXAS CODE OF CRIMINAL PROCEDURE, Art. 43.24. TREATMENT OF CONDEMNEDNo torture, or ill treatment, or unnecessary pain, shall be inflicted upon a prisoner to be executed under the sentence of the law.

Hypocrisy: a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially: the false assumption of an appearance of virtue.

30 years ago, just after midnight, Dec. 7, 1982, Texas executed Charlie Brooks with a lethal cocktail of three drugs.  Texas had been execution-free for 18 years, since 1964. The first African American executed in the U.S. since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, Brooks’ final words were an Islamic prayer (“There is no God but Allah. Verily do we belong and verily unto Him do we return.”) followed by a “stay strong” to his girlfriend.


Forcible Medication Now, Lethal Injection Next

The medical profession, whose prime directive is “do no harm,” gets dragged into the mud when health care providers are required, or choose, to get involved in executions.  Back in January, Ty Alper, associate director of Berkeley Law School’s Death Penalty Clinic, wrote an important paper on the participation of doctors in executions, or rather the widespread failure to exclude their participation.  “Nearly all capital punishment states specifically call for doctors to be involved in some way,” he told Canada Views, which was reporting on an award he has received this week for his work.

But there are also ways outside of the execution chamber that health care professionals can contribute to the execution of a prisoner, in violation of their basic oath.  One area where the medical profession and the death penalty collide is in the execution of the mentally ill, a distressingly regular practice of our capital punishment system.  Tennessee, for example, is still scheduled to execute a seriously mentally ill man, Stephen West, on Nov. 9.  A similar execution in Texas has been postponed, as Lone Star State authorities try to forcibly medicate a severely mentally ill manSteven Kenneth Staley – so he can become temporarily competent enough to be put to death. 

Texas capital punishment and science have always had an uneasy relationship.  From trying to quash an investigation into bad forensic science, to paying psychiatrists (including Dr. James Grigson, aka “Dr. Death”) to convince juries of someone’s “future dangerousness”, to seeking to hide basic information about the drugs used for executions, to attempting to revive the scientifically invalid practice of scent lineups, Texas capital punishment enthusiasts have never had a problem taking steps that undermine the respectability of the medical and scientific professions. 

But even by these standards, if the state is calling on doctors, or other medical professionals, to forcibly medicate a man for the sole purpose of killing him, that is pretty low.

Docs Won’t Help Ohio Kill

Health professionals confirm death in 1998 Guatemala execution. (c) Jorge Uzon

Health professionals confirm death in 1998 Guatemala execution. (c) Jorge Uzon

Ohio’s botched and failed execution of Romell Broom, which has led to the postponement of all the Buckeye State’s execution plans – at least for this year – has created another problem for the state.  It seems that when you are doing something morally repugnant, like putting a human being to death with lethal chemicals, those with ethics don’t want to help you.  So, as Ohio looks for ways to improve its ability to kill prisoners without embarrassing mishaps, it is not surprising that they are having a hard time finding a respectable member of the medical profession who is willing to help them.  Killing someone, it seems, is somewhat of a violation of the whole “do no harm” code of ethics to which health professionals are bound.

According to an AP report, on Friday, Ohio’s Attorney General Richard Cordray filed a brief with a federal District Court explaining that “ethical and professional considerations are deterring doctors and others from offering advice about lethal injection.”

Apparently, due to this difficulty, Ohio now has judges, police and lawmakers helping to find some medical professionals who are willing to take their ethical obligations less seriously and give the state the help it needs to resume killing.

Meanwhile, there is nothing to prevent us from continuing to offer our own – albeit unsolicited – advice, that the best way for Ohio to avoid these moral quandaries it to simply stop executions.