California Officials Debate Least Inhumane Way to Kill

Categories: Law & Order
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From drawing and quartering to firing squads to hanging to electric chairs to gas chambers to three-drug lethal injections to one-drug lethal injections.
The current method for executing people in California is as such: First pentobarbital, an anesthetic, knocks the person unconscious; next, pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant, paralyzes the body; and then potassium chloride, whose most common uses are as fertilizer and for state-sponsored killing, stops the heart.

One problem with this method is that it can be very painful if the second and third drugs kick in before the anesthetic. Which is why federal judge Jeremy Fogel in 2006 placed a moratorium on California executions -- the legitimate risk that an inmate would terribly suffer violates the Constitution's ban against cruel and unusual punishment, he concluded.

Some people think there is a better way to execute inmates: Simply pump in in a lethal dose of the anesthetic (a "one-drug execution"). This method also presents problems. The executionee takes longer to die and, because corrections departments in America have only used the process for about a year and a half, potential complications might still be unknown.

State officials have run into a problem that has plagued mankind since Abraham took Isaac to Mount Moriah: What is the most humane way to kill somebody?

Or, perhaps more accurately: What is the least inhumane way to kill somebody?

As the Chronicle reported in this morning's paper, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley is trying to get a judge to approve a one-drug execution for two prisoners. The single-injection method, Cooley argues, removes the risk that the inmate will feel extreme pain.

Eight other states have already transitioned into the one-drug model, including death penalty connoisseurs Texas, Georgia, and Arizona, as well as fellow Pacific Coast blue-state Washington. It's an unlikely common ground, though not necessarily the result of common motivation.

One-drug executions are not only supposed to be less inhumane, they are becoming logistically necessary. Texas, for instance, made the switch in July, when it ran out of pancuronium bromide, which is in short supply nationwide. Shifting from three drugs to one allows states to continue their execution schedules while pancuronium bromide supplies expire.

It's possible that this whole debate turns moot by week 10 of the NFL season. Through the November ballot's Prop. 34, voters will determine whether or not California keeps capital punishment.

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