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Death Penalty: New report calls for doctors to stop doing lethal injections

Paralysed prisoners in ‘chemical straitjackets’ unable to move or cry out during execution

Amnesty International has called for doctors and other medical personnel to stop taking part in lethal injection executions as it published a new report today showing the extent and cruelty of death by lethal injection.

Professional medical bodies have expressed strong ethical opposition to the involvement of medical professionals in lethal injections but, as Amnesty International’s report shows, numerous doctors and other specialists have continued to carry out executions in breach of their own ethical standards.

Amnesty International’s Health and Human Rights Coordinator Dr James Welsh said:

“Medical professionals are trained to work for patients’ well-being, not to participate in executions ordered by the state.

“Governments are putting doctors and nurses in an impossible position by asking them to do something that goes against their ethical oath.

“The simplest way of resolving the ethical dilemmas posed by using doctors and nurses to kill is by abolishing the death penalty.”

Amnesty International is totally opposed to the death penalty in all instances regardless of execution method, and its 41-page report, ‘Execution by lethal injection: a quarter century of state poisoning’ challenges the claim that lethal injections are a “humane” alternative to “traditional” execution methods like hanging, beheading, shooting, gassing or electrocution.

In fact the report lists a series of botched executions carried out by lethal injection (see cases studies below). Some prisoners have enduring prolonged deaths of over an hour, others have gone into convulsions or suffered skin burns or bloody “cut-down” operations to find veins.

In addition, the medical “efficiency” of lethal injection has recently been called into serious question, with grave concerns that its cocktail of drugs can result in a prisoner being put into a “chemical straitjacket” - conscious but totally paralysed and unable to move or cry out while suffering excruciating pain and extreme mental suffering before death. For this reason the chemicals are not used by veterinary surgeons on animals for euthanasia. Texas, for example, has executed more than 400 people by lethal injection in the last 25 years, but since September 2003 has banned similar injections in animal euthanasia.

Amnesty International’s report also charts the growth of lethal injections around the world. Since the world’s first lethal injection was carried out in the state of Texas, USA in 1982, over 900 such executions have occurred in the US alone. In China, where executions numbers are an official secret, it is possible that thousands of people have been executed this way since 1997. Lethal injections now account for 85% of US executions in the United States and a growing proportion of judicial killings carried out in China (the world’s biggest user of the death penalty).

In recent years China has introduced “mobile execution chambers” - converted 24-seater buses with windowless execution chambers at their rear. Prisoners are strapped down to metal beds in these bus chambers, a needle is then attached to the prisoner by a doctor before a police officer presses a button activating an automatic syringe which inserts the lethal drug into the prisoner’s vein. Executions are watched on a monitor next to the driver’s seat and can be videotaped.

As Amnesty International’s report shows, besides the USA and China lethal injection killings have also taken place in Guatemala, the Philippines and Thailand, while legal systems in Taiwan and Papua New Guinea allow for lethal injection, and India and Vietnam have discussed its introduction.

According to even minimum figures, 1,591 people were executed in 25 countries in 2006 and Amnesty International is calling on the current session of the United Nations General Assembly to vote for an international moratorium on the death penalty.

Amnesty International has long campaigned for total global abolition of the death penalty and the organisation points out that claims about the relative “efficiency” of lethal injections compared to other methods of killing fail to even consider other vital issues regarding the death penalty.

Dr Welsh added:

“The use of lethal injection does not resolve the problems inherent to the death penalty: its cruelty; its irreversibility; the risk of executing the innocent; its discriminatory and arbitrary application; and its irrelevance to effective crime control.”

Sample of botched executions:

Bennie Demps, Florida, USA, 8 June 2000: execution personnel took 33 minutes to find a vein for the injection; among Demps’ last words were “They cut me in the groin; they cut me in the leg. They butchered me back there.”

Joseph Clark, Ohio, USA, 2 May 2006: execution personnel took 22 minutes to find a vein, only for the vein then to collapse and Clark’s arm to swell. Clark repeatedly raised his head to say “It don’t work, it don’t work”, before the curtain around the gurney was closed. It was a further half an hour before a vein was eventually found.

Angel Diaz, Florida, USA, 13 December 2006: injection missed the vein and Diaz was seen moving - grimacing, blinking, blowing, mouthing words - for some 24 minutes before a second injection was administered. After half an hour a doctor wearing a hood to cover his face entered the chamber and Diaz was pronounced dead.

Manuel Martinez Coronado, Guatemala, 10 February 1999: the execution was televised; viewers saw medical personnel in green surgical gowns and face masks taking 18 minutes to find a vein, while Martinez’s wife, who was present with her three Children's rights, was heard wailing in the background. The executioners could be seen shaking, apparently with nerves.

Note on chemicals
Lethal injection generally involves the intravenous introduction of three chemicals into the body: (1) sodium thiopental (also know by the trade name Pentothal), which induces general anaesthesia; (2) pancuronium bromide, which causes muscle paralysis, and hence respiratory failure; (3) potassium chloride, which leads to cardiac arrest. If the anaesthetic is inadequate or causes an unexpected reaction, the pain caused by potassium chloride in the blood system and subsequent heart attack could be intense, while paralysis may mean the victim is unable to even signal their distress.

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