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May 28, 2006

A bit of lethal injection history

This morning's Austin American-Statesman has this lengthy article, entitled "Death penalty's drug cocktail rooted in Texas," that provides some historical background on how lethal injection became the primary execution method in the United States.  Here's a snippet:

[T]he procedure of death by needle was the creation of an Oklahoma medical examiner and was put into practice by Texas prison officials.  Now, that chain of events, reminiscent of the stereotypical good ol' boy prison environment in the classic 1967 movie "Cool Hand Luke," could draw Texas into the cross hairs of a growing national legal battle over whether lethal injections are as painless as once thought.  And whether they are unconstitutional....

State Rep. Bill Wiseman, a Republican from Tulsa, suggested that there had to be a better way to execute criminals than electrocution, a process that had fallen out of public favor because it was increasingly viewed as brutal and violent.  Wiseman consulted doctors, who refused to help, citing their oath to save lives, not take them.  He got the same response from scientists and other medical professionals. "I muttered to colleagues that it looked as if I would need to find a veterinarian to tell me how to 'put down' condemned prisoners," Wiseman recalled in a 2001 article in The Christian Century magazine.

Enter A. Jay Chapman, Oklahoma's state medical examiner, a doctor who had been responsible for pronouncing inmates dead after electrocutions in Colorado.  Chapman had no pharmacological training, just an opinion and a willingness to help.  During a meeting with Wiseman, he dictated what was to become the new national template: "An intravenous saline drip shall be started in the prisoner's arm, into which shall be introduced a lethal injection consisting of an ultra-short-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic agent."...

Chapman was quoted as saying in [a recent] report. "I didn't do any research.... It's just common knowledge. Doctors know potassium chloride is lethal." Wiseman's lethal injection bill was soon passed into law.  Texas lawmakers approved their version, with virtually identical wording, the next day.  More than 30 other states soon followed suit, including California and Florida.

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