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US Has No Fool-Proof Method of Execution
Published on Saturday, December 16, 2006 by the Agence France Presse
US Has No Fool-Proof Method of Execution

From the hangman whose rope snaps to paramedics who cannot find a vein for a lethal injection, death penalty executions in the United States have sometimes been sorry affairs.

A California Department of Corrections photo shows the interior of the San Quentin Prison execution chamber. Photo:/AFP
Till the end of the 19th century, executions were largely carried out by hanging. When done properly the condemned falls and snaps his neck, dying instantly. But according to press reports of the time, ropes sometimes broke, sending the condemned person tumbling to the ground. Sometimes the fall was so violent that the condemned was decapitated.

Worse, if the prisoner was not weighted down properly, the noose would tighten but not snap his neck. The victim dangled in the air for as long as it took him to strangle.

The electric chair has been equally problematic.

The condemned prisoner is strapped into the chair, one electrode attached to the head and the second to the leg, providing a full circuit. A jolt of 2,000 volts in theory makes the victim unconscious. The second jolt of electricity then destroys internal organs.

The victim's hands contract, legs twitch violently, and there is sometimes nose bleeding, urination and vomiting. Then there is the stench of burned flesh.

The gas chamber, which came into use in 1924 and is offered in several US states, may result in the spectacle of a condemned person strapped to a chair gasping for air, with bulging red eyes and writhing in what seems to be terrible suffering as he gasps for air.

Lethal injections, first used in 1982, was supposed to limit this suffering. It has been used in more than 80 percent of executions since then.

The condemned is strapped to a gurney and injected with anesthetic sodium pentothal. The prisoner, now unconscious, is injected with pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes muscles including the diaphragm. Then a shot of potassium chloride brings swift cardiac arrest -- or so it should work.

The sodium pentothal is of short duration so, death penalty opponents argue that the condemned is paralyzed and if not fully unconscious, would die the agonizing death that potassium chloride would guarantee.

Furthermore, opponents say, prison personnel are not properly trained to correctly administer lethal injections in problem cases, especially when dealing with former intravenous drug addicts.

"They butchered me back there!" cried Bennie Demps as he was being executed in Florida in 2000.

On May 2 Joseph Clark had a similar experience during his execution in Ohio. "It don't work!" he howled, as prison workers searched for a vein to inject the sedative. The curtain was drawn, but witnesses could hear him cry and groan while the executioners poked around for another vein.

On Friday, Florida Governor Jeb Bush suspended all executions pending a review of lethal injections, after the agonizing 34-minute death of Angel Nieves Diaz, 55 on Wednesday. He required a second lethal dose after a needle missed his vein, according to an autopsy after witnesses saw him writhing.

© 2006 AFP


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