A Brief History
On December 7, 1982, the State of Texas executed convicted murderer Charles Brooks, Jr. by lethal injection, the first such execution in US history. Lethal injection would go on to become the preferred method of execution in the US until the 21st Century when serious problems manifested themselves.
Prior to lethal injection, the Federal government and state governments used a variety of methods of execution, from hanging and firing squads to the electric chair and the gas chamber. These methods were all deemed to be “humane,” at least compared to the barbaric methods previously employed around the world such as drawing and quartering, burning, cooking in a Brazen Bull, pressing, impaling, crucifying, or having an elephant sit on the condemned. The list of fiendish methods goes on and on, although in fairness, so does the evil nature of many of the murders committed that earned a death sentence.
The idea behind lethal injection is quite similar to that employed by your local veterinarian when he puts a terminally ill pet “to sleep.” The first part is to put the person literally, to sleep, using a drug to make the person lose consciousness as in surgical anesthesia. This is applied through an IV, which by the way, an IV is implanted in each arm so one is immediately available if the other becomes blocked for some reason. Typically sodium thiopental or pentobarbital is used to render the subject unconscious. Then a deadly drug is introduced through the IV, such as pancuronium bromide, that relaxes all muscle function and stops breathing, inducing death by suffocation. An additional dose of potassium chloride is also introduced to stop the heart from beating.
Done properly, the condemned person falls asleep and never wakes up, presumably dying peacefully and without pain. Unfortunately, this does not always happen and many recent cases of condemned criminals thrashing about and taking many minutes to die has put to rest the myth that lethal injection is “painless” or “humane.” Complicating the procedure are the drug companies that have been refusing to provide the necessary drugs to government entities that intend to use their products to kill people, causing the executioners to seek alternate drugs or use old, expired stocks.
Only 36 of the 200 or so countries in the world still maintain capital punishment and a few more maintain that sentence only for specific crimes such as treason. Although 31 states still have a death penalty in their laws, only a few have executed anyone in the past 3 years (about 9 states) and the number executed in 2013, 39, is likely to go down considerably due to massive current controversy over botched executions. Texas manages to kill about 40% of all those recently executed in the US.
Capital punishment is abhorrent to many people, and of advanced Western style nations only the US and Japan maintain its use. Of course, the loved ones of victims of heinous crimes may feel and think differently, and prefer a not so humane execution for the perpetrators of particularly evil crimes. Religious leaders vary on the subject as well.
Question for students (and subscribers): Where do you fit in this debate? Tell us what you think of capital punishment, if and when it should be applied, if ever, and why in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Pilgrim, Rocky LeAnn, Jon Sorensen, et al. Lethal Injection: Capital Punishment in Texas during the Modern Era. University of Texas Press, 2013.