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Length of execution time has doubled since new drug protocol was implemented - study

Published time: January 30, 2014 22:36
 Herbert Smulls (Reuters / Missouri Department of Corrections / Handout)

Herbert Smulls (Reuters / Missouri Department of Corrections / Handout)

New death penalty protocols are outraging capital punishment opponents and possibly making the executions more painful, extending the process so that it now takes twice as long for state officials to execute a convict, according to a new study.

Researchers affiliated with Britain’s Guardian newspaper examined three years’ worth of executions carried out in Texas, the state that fulfills more of its death penalty sentences than any other in the US.

The issue has been in the headlines of late because European drug manufacturers have halted the shipment of chemicals to US states where they were used to carry out executions. A number of states – including Texas, Ohio, and Missouri – have now been forced to change the drugs used in the process, with Texas shifting from a conventional three-drug cocktail to just one drug, pentobarbital.

Executions occurring before the switch, ten of which were tracked, took between nine and 11 minutes to complete, from the injection of the lethal cocktail until the time of death. That number more than doubled in the 23 executions that happened after the switch, with pentobarbital taking between 12 to 30 minutes to sedate and then kill someone.

Several high-profile cases have garnered national media attention because of the disturbing nature of the convict’s last moments.

Dennis McGuire, a convicted rapist and murderer who was put to death in Ohio on January 16, took up to 25 minutes to die after being injected with a cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone. For the final 10 minutes, though, McGuire was “struggling and gasping loudly for air, making snorting and choking sounds that lasted for at least 10 minutes, with his chest heaving and fist clenched. Deep, rattling sounds emanated from his mouth,” according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Herbert Smulls was put to death in Missouri Wednesday night and, while he died in nine minutes and did not appear to suffer during that time, his death has raised questions about the secrecy surrounding the drugs used. Lawmakers claim that if they reveal which drugs are used in the process they would be risking that company’s willingness to be involved in capital punishment. However others say that if a state were to lift its self-imposed restriction on information, scientists might be able to devise a strategy that is more effective.

There have been multiple reports of previously untested drug combinations leading to botched executions, which is a polite way of saying the condemned person suffered greatly while being put to death,” wrote the New York Times editorial board in a blistering op-ed published Wednesday night.

States should simply admit that they don’t really know how these drug protocols will work, but instead they have tried to hide almost all information about the drugs and who makes them – increasingly through legislation.”

Increasing inconsistency on what crimes merited the death penalty and widespread confusion about the correct protocol inspired the US Supreme Court to place a moratorium on capital punishment in 1972. That prohibition was lifted four years later when legislators agreed to clearer guidelines.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, told the Guardian that for another moratorium to be introduced, death penalty opponents would need to prove that the lethal injection process has become so long and painful that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

The whole idea of the three-drug process is that it would be quick,” Dieter said. “If it should get a lot longer the purpose of doing [lethal injections] for appearance would disappear…if they get longer I think everybody gets a bit uncomfortable.”