Lethal Injection: A Closer Look

In what eyewitnesses described as a surreal scene of chaos, it took Florida Department of Corrections staff 34 minutes to end the life of Angel Nieves Diaz on December 14, 2006.

During the execution, Diaz winced, gasped for air, and appeared to be in pain.

He was gasping for air for 11 minutes. Twenty-six minutes into the procedure, Diaz's body suddenly jolted. He was given a second round of drugs after the execution team observed that the first round had failed to kill him. He was finally pronounced dead by a hooded physician 34 minutes after the execution began.

Explanations of Diaz's Suffering Defy Medical Logic

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger told the press Diaz had liver disease, which slowed the effectiveness of the drugs and necessitated the second round.

But Plessigner's explanation doesn't add up.

The idea that liver disease would have made the drugs less effective defies all medical logic. Patients with liver disease are usually more sensitive, not less sensitive, to the anesthetic drugs. From my own conversation with execution eyewitnesses, I believe that something went terribly awry with this execution. It is quite likely that Mr. Diaz was conscious and in extreme pain.

I believe that he was tortured to death.

The State of Florida has a constitutional duty to carry out this punishment in a manner that does not torture the inmate. Clearly, Florida failed to meet this obligation on the night of December 14th.

Standard Method a Questionable Method

Lethal injection is the method that is used for 99 percent of executions in the United States. In theory, the process is similar to having anesthesia for surgery.

In an operating room, the patient lies down and an intravenous line is started in an arm vein. An anesthesiologist then injects medications into the IV intended to render the patient unconscious and unable to perceive pain.

For a lethal injection, the "patient" is an inmate who is condemned to die. The injection will render the patient lifeless. This injection contains a triple overdose of anesthesia drugs: sodium thiopental, which induces unconsciousness; pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the breathing muscles; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

The drugs are usually mixed and injected by prison guards with no medical training. Furthermore, there can also be problems inserting the needle into the patient's vein. For an execution, the person inserting the IV into the prisoner often has little training or experience. This part of the procedure is sometimes made more difficult by the fact that many death row inmates have scarred, tortuous veins from previous drug abuse.

Recent Cases Suggest Cruel and Unusual Punishment

In Diaz's case, the needles in both arms missed their targets. As a result, not only did he suffer a slow and agonizing death because the drugs were not delivered into his veins, but he was also chemically burned by the highly concentrated drugs flowing under his skin. This was illustrated by 11-and-12-inch chemical burns on his arms revealed during his autopsy.

In another recent execution in Ohio, witnesses were treated to the horrifying spectacle of an inmate who did not die when the drugs were administered. In this case, three to four minutes into the execution, the inmate raised his head off the table and said, "It don't work, it don't work."

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