Capital punishment abuses

Today’s editorial in the New York Times addresses the issue of capital punishment. In particular, the editorial discusses recent abuses of lethal injection, in which states such as Missouri are hiring incompetent and unqualified “doctors” to handle the injections, resulting in numerous botched executions.

The Times writes: “We oppose capital punishment for a host of reasons, including that it is unconstitutional. Even those who support executing their citizens must see the need to ensure that the process is not barbarically cruel and is fully open to public scrutiny.” I fully agree with their position, though I would cite biblical and theological reasons to reject capital punishment (see here). At the very least, our society needs to be a place where life-taking acts are not simply accepted without question but are continually subjected to careful scrutiny and outside assessment. The taking of human life is no trivial matter. The moral fabric of this nation depends upon an awareness of how serious the matter of capital punishment really is, while the moral fabric of the church depends upon a consistently pro-life position that rejects capital punishment.


The death penalty is obscene. I have been working to get rid of it since I was 17--long before I became a pacifist. I am glad that, finally, public opinion seems to be turning against it for the first time since the late '60s.
D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks for your work, Michael. I hope you see it pay off someday.
Maiden said…
Well said! Thanks!
Anonymous said…
I think capital punishment is a good thing. If you kill someone we should kill you back. If your man enough to kill someone, be man enough to suffer the consiquences!
dudleysharp said…
on the unconsitutional issue:

Is the Death Penalty Constitutional? Is this a serious question?
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below

Twice, the  5th Amendment authorizes execution.

(1) “ No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury . . . " and

(2) ". . . nor shall any person  . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . ”.
The 14th amendment is, equally, clear:

" . . . nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . ."
Not surprisingly, over 200 years of US Supreme Court decisions support those amendments and the US Constitution in authorizing and enforcing the death penalty.

Some wrongly believe that the US Supreme Court decision, Furman v Georgia (1972), found the death penalty unconstitutional. It did not.

The decisions found that the statutory enforcement of the death penalty in the US was a violation of the 8th Amendment.

Based upon the death penalty being integral within the constitution, through the 5th and 14th amendments, I do not believe it will ever be found unconstitutional.
dudleysharp said…
Apparently, the New York Times forgot to fact check.

Lethal Injection: Current Controversies Resolved
By Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters

Several issues have come up with regard to lethal injection.

Generally, they are: 1) The murderer experiencing pain during execution; 2) The ethics of medical professionals participating in executions; and 3) Proper training of execution personnel.


The evidence, including the immediate autopsy of executed serial murderer/rapist Michael Ross, supports that there is no pain within the lethal injection process.

There is a concern that some inmates may be conscious, but paralyzed, during execution, because one of the three drugs used may have worn off, prior to death.

First, there is no evidence this has occurred. There is speculation.

Secondly, if properly administered, it cannot occur with the properties and amounts of the chemicals used and within the time frame of an execution.

Thirdly, no one has explained how the first drug could have worn off, within the time frame of execution. Or, how is it that the first drug was, somehow, improperly administered, but the second and third were not, when using the same lines and procedures?

An Associated Press reporter correctly stated that "there is little to support those claims except a few anecdotes of inmates gasping and convulsing and an article in the British medical journal Lancet." (AP, "Death penalty foes attack lethal-injection drug", 7/5/05)

The British Medical Journal, The Lancet, published an article critical of lethal injection (Volume 365, 4/16/05). A follow up article, by essential the same group of researchers, published a similar report in PLoS Medicine on 4/24/07.

The articles did not/could not identify one case where evidence existed than an inmate was conscious during execution.

The Lancet article identified 21 cases of execution where the level of "post mortem" (after death) sodium thiopental was below that used in surgery and, therefore, may suggest consciousness was possible.

A more accurate description would be all but impossible.

A "long after execution" post mortem measurement of sodium thiopental is very different from a moment of death measurement.

Dr. Lydia Conlay, chair of the department of anesthesiology, Baylor College of Medicine (Texas Medical Center, Houston) said the extrapolation of postmortem sodium thiopental levels in the blood to those at the time of execution is by no means a proven method. "I just don't think we can draw any conclusions from (the Lancet study) , one way or the other."

Actually, we can. The science is well known. Sodium thiopental is absorbed rapidly into the body. Long after execution blood testing of those levels means absolutely nothing with regard to the levels at the time of execution. Nothing.

The Lancet article did not dispute the obvious -- for executions, the sodium thiopental is administered in dosages roughly 10-20 times the amount necessary for sedation unconsciousness during surgical procedures.

Unconsciousness occurs within the first 30 seconds of the injection/execution process. The injection of the three drugs takes from 4-5 minutes. Death usually occurs within 6-7 minutes and is pronounced within 8-10 minutes.

The researchers also failed to note the much lower probability (impossibility?) that the murderer could be conscious, while all three drugs are coursing through the veins, concurrently.

Despite the Lancet article's presumptions and omissions, there is no scientific evidence that consciousness could occur with the amounts and methods of injecting those three chemicals within the execution period.

The AP article also stated that "They (death penalty opponents) also attack lethal injection by saying that the steps to complete it haven't been reviewed by medical professionals."

That is both deceptive and irrelevant.

The unchallenged reality is that medical professionals have both reviewed and implemented injection procedures for decades. The same procedures are used in executions. Criminal justice professionals have been trained in this application.

Does anyone not know this?

The chemicals used in lethal injection, as well as their individual and collective results, at the dosages used, are also well known by medical and pharmacology professionals. And this?

Dr. A. Jay Chapman, the former Oklahoma Medical Examiner, who created the protocol, consulted a toxicologist and two anesthesiologists. He states the obvious " ' . . .it didn't actually require much research because the three chemicals - a painkiller, a muscle-paralyzing agent and a heart-stopper - are well-known to physicians.' 'It is anesthetizing someone for a surgical procedure, but simply carried to an extreme.' 'If it is competently administered, there will be no question about this business of pain and suffering.' "("Lethal Injection Father Defends Creation", Paul Ellias, Associated Press, 5/10/07)

Further, lethal injection is not a medical procedure, but the culmination of a judicial sentence carried out by criminal justice professionals, the result of which is intended as death, the outcome of every case.

The follow up research/article is "Lethal Injection for Execution: Chemical Asphyxiation?"(Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine, 4/24/07). Dr. Koniaris was an author in both this and the Lancet article.

The question mark from the title says it all.

From the Conclusion:

" . . . our findings suggest that current lethal injection protocols "may" not reliably effect death through the mechanisms intended, indicating a failure of design and implementation. "If" thiopental and potassium chloride fail to cause anesthesia and cardiac arrest, potentially aware inmates "could" die through pancuronium-induced asphyxiation." (Underline, quote and color change are mine, for emphasis)

In other words, the authors tell us they cannot prove this has ever happened. They are speculating.

Skip the speculation: Some Reality

From Hartford Courant, "Ross Autopsy Stirs Execution Debate----Results Cited To Counter Talk Of Pre-Death Pain", August 11, 2005

The below is a paraphrase of parts of that article, including some exact quotes.

Results of the autopsy done on serial killer Michael Ross are being cited by several prominent doctors to refute a highly publicized article that appeared in The Lancet, the British medical journal, in April, 2005.

Critics of the Lancet article say it does not account for postmortem redistribution of the anesthetic - thiopental. The redistribution, the critics say, accounts for the lower levels of thiopental on which Dr. Koniaris based his Lancet article conclusions that the levels of anesthetic were inadequate. The Ross autopsy results document this redistribution, bolstering the critics' assertions.

Dr. H. Wayne Carver II, Connecticut's chief medical examiner, was aware of the controversial Lancet article before performing the Ross autopsy. As a result, he took the additional step of drawing a sample of Ross's blood 20 minutes after he was pronounced dead at 2:25 a.m. May 13. Carver took a subsequent sample during the autopsy, which began about 7 hours later, at 9:40 a.m.

The 1st sample showed a concentration of 29.6 milligrams per liter of thiopental; the second sample showed a concentration of 9.4 milligrams per liter. The 1st sample was drawn from Ross' right femoral artery, and the second from his heart, which can account for some of the discrepancy. But Dr. Mark Heath, a New York anesthesiologist and one of the numerous doctors who have signed letters to The Lancet challenging the Koniaris article, said it clearly substantiates the postmortem redistribution of the thiopental.

Dr. Jonathan Groner, a pediatric surgeon from Ohio said he interviewed a number of forensic toxicologists before adopting the view that thiopental in a corpse leaves the blood and is absorbed by the fat, causing blood samples taken hours after death to be an unreliable marker of the levels of thiopental in the body at the time of death.

Groner described the Ross autopsy results as "a powerful refutation" of the Lancet-Koniaris study.

Dr. Ashraf Mozayani, a forensic toxicologist with the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office in Texas, said the level of thiopental "drops quite a bit" after death. Even in the living, Mozayani said, thiopental levels decline rapidly after administration of the drug. She cited one study in which a patient was administered 400 milligrams of thiopental intravenously. After two minutes the concentration in the blood was measured at 28 milligrams, but dropped to 3 milligrams concentration 19 minutes after the anesthetic was injected.

Mozayani said the declining concentration of thiopental cited in the Ross autopsy report "make sense."

On The Lancet article, she said, "I don't think they have the whole story - the postmortem redistribution and all the other things they have to consider for postmortem testing."

NOTE: I think that had and knew the whole story. They just didn't include it in their report(s).

The Veterinary sidetrack

Opponents of the death penalty, as well as other uninformed or deceptive sources, have been stating that even vets do not use the paralytic agent in the euthanasia of animals. This is a perversion of the veterinary position, which actually provides support, however unintended, for the human execution process. Some fact checking is in order -- www(dot)


Medical groups cite that there is an ethical conflict for participation in the lethal injection process, because medical professionals have a requirement to "do no harm".

Those ethical codes pertain to their medical profession, only.

For example, both doctors and nurses can be police and soldiers and can kill, when deemed appropriate, within those lines of duty and without violating the ethical codes of their medical profession. Similarly, medical professionals do not violate their codes of ethics, when acting as technical experts, for executions, in a criminal justice procedure.

Physicians are often part of double or triple blind studies where there is hope that the tested drugs may, someday, prove beneficial. The physicians and other researchers know that many patients, taking placebos or less effective drugs, will suffer more additional harm or death because they are not taking the subject drug or that the subject drug will actually harm or kill more patients than the placebo of other drugs used in the study.

Physicians knowingly harm individual patients, in direct contradiction to their "do no harm" oath.

For the greater good, those physicians sacrifice innocent, willing and brave patients. Of course, there have been medical experiments without consent and, even, today, they continue ("Critical Care Without Consent", Washington Post, May 27, 2007; Page A01).

The greater good is irrelevant, from an ethical standpoint, if "Do no harm" means "do no harm". Physicians knowingly make exceptions to their "do no harm" requirement, every day, within their profession, where that code actually does apply. And, they should.

The "do no harm" has no ethical effect in a non medical context, because this ethical requirement is for medical treatments, only, and for patients, only.

The acknowledged anti death penalty editors of The Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine agree. They write:

"Execution by lethal injection, even if it uses tools of intensive care such as intravenous tubing and beeping heart monitors, has the same relationship to medicine that an executioner's axe has to surgery." ("Lethal Injection Is Not Humane", PLoS, 4/24/07)

The PLoS Medicine editors have made the same point many of us have been making - similar acts and similar equipment do not establish any equivalence or connection.

There is no connection between medicine and lethal injection, therefore there is no ethical prohibition for medical professionals to participate in executions.

To put it clearly: The execution of death row inmates is not equivalent or connected to the treatment of patients.

Is this a mystery?

Obviously, execution is not a medical treatment, but a criminal justice sanction. The basis for medical treatment is to improve the plight of the patient, for which the medical profession provides obvious and daily exceptions. The basis for execution is to carry out a criminal justice sentence where death is the sanction.

Justice, deterrence, retribution, just punishments, upholding the social contract, saving innocent life, etc., are all recognized as aspects of the death penalty, all dealing with the greater good.

Are murderers on death row willing participants? Of course. They willingly committed the crime and, therefore, willingly exposed themselves to the social contract of that jurisdiction.

Lethal injection is not a medical procedure. It is a criminal justice sanction authorized by law. Therefore, there is no ethical conflict with medical codes of conduct and medical personal participating in executions.

40,000 to 100,000 innocents die, every year, in the US because of medical misadventure or improper medical treatment. (1)

Do no harm? The doctor doth protest too much, methinks.

There is no proof of an innocent executed in the US since 1900.


In every state, there are hundreds or thousands of people trained for IV application of drugs or the taking of blood. Even many hard core drug addicts are proficient in IV application.

There may be only 1 or 2 times where personnel error may have led to problems in the lethal injection process. That is out of nearly 900 lethal injections in the US.

It appears that some 500-1000 innocent patients die, every year, in the US, due to some type of medical misadventure, with anesthesia. (1)

Do no harm? Glass house. Stones.

I am unaware of evidence that shows criminal justice professionals are more likely to commit some error in the lethal injection process than are medical professionals in IV application.

Furthermore, even with errors in lethal injection, those cases resulted in the death of the inmate - the intended outcome for the guilty murderer.

In the errors of medical professionals, we are speaking of a large number of deaths and injuries to innocent patients - the opposite of the intended outcome.

1) see "Deaths from Medical Misadventure" at and "Health Grades Quality Study: Patient Safety in American Hospitals, July 2004"

originally written May, 2005. Updated as merited.

copyright 2005-2009

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters e-mail sharpjfa(at), 713-622-5491 Houston, Texas

Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

Pro death penalty sites: (Sweden)

Permission for distribution of this document is approved with proper attribution