The shocking lack of science behind lethal injections

“Until a judge told them to stop in mid-April, penal authorities in Arkansas planned to kill seven people in 11 days,” began an article in WIRED magazine. “All seven were convicted of horrible crimes and sentenced to die by the state; put aside how you feel about that for a moment. What’s salient here is how those men are supposed to die—the execution of their executions.

According to Arkansas’ Lethal Injection Procedure, each man will first get an intravenous injection of a sedative called midazolam, a benzodiazepene—the same class of drugs as Valium. On death row it’s supposed to induce a deep, insensate coma.

Then comes a dose of vecuronium bromide. Technically that’s a nonpolarizing neuromuscular blocker, a muscle relaxant. On death row, it’s a paralytic, intended to keep the prisoner still and, maybe, to suffocate. If you can’t move your diaphragm, you can’t inhale.

All that’s just a wind-up for the real kill shot: potassium chloride. The potassium ion messes up the electrical properties of the cells of the heart, making it impossible for them to contract. The heart stops beating.

Not every state executes prisoners the same way. Some only use one drug, or follow different protocols. But the idea, everywhere, is the same: to execute people without violating the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. In fact, the whole point of lethal injection was that it seems like a more humane way of executing someone than hanging, shooting, head-chopping-off, gas chambers, stuff like that.

The problem is, no one knows if lethal injection really is more humane. In court case after court case, lawyers have argued that botched executions by lethal injection show that it’s a painful and faulty method. What little research exists hints at the same conclusion. No matter how you feel about the fact that the criminal justice system sometimes kills people, even innocent people, you have to also feel something about the fact that the criminal justice system isn’t very good at killing people.”

The WIRED article goes on to say that conducting executions isn’t easy for several reasons, among them that doctors-members are forbidden by the American Medical Association to do research on executing people because it’s “inherently unethical to conduct experiments on how to best execute people.” For the full article see

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