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Bad Medicine on Lethal Injection

By Debra Saunders

Death penalty opponents will say anything, no matter how unbelievable, to stop an execution during the appeals process. There is no claim too bogus for some lawyers and activists -- and apparently no claim too bogus for some medical journals.

Last month, a second medical journal printed an article that suggested lethal injection may routinely subject death-row inmates to agonizing pain before they die.

In California, the three-drug lethal-injection protocol starts with 12.5 times the amount of sodium pentothal needed to begin invasive surgery, and is followed by lethal doses of two other drugs.

The protocol is designed not to cause unnecessary pain, and certain death. And that is what it does. But wait. The online edition of PLoS Medicine -- a San Francisco-based medical journal -- features a peer-reviewed article, "Lethal Injection for Execution: Chemical Asphyxiation?" It said, "Our findings suggest that current lethal injection protocols may not reliably effect death through the mechanisms intended, indicating a failure of design and implementation."

That is, the wrong drug might have killed some inmates or might not have. The article concluded that lethal injection practices "probably violate" the Eight Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. PLoS also ran an editorial that noted that, "Each of the editors of PloS Medicine opposes the death penalty." Also, "no ethical journal" would publish research about painless ways to administer lethal injection. And -- no surprise -- America should end the death penalty.

The PLoS piece follows an article that appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet in 2005. That piece cited toxicology blood samples taken from executed inmates and reported that postmortem concentrations of the sodium pentothal "were lower than that required for surgery in 43 or 49 executed inmates."

It helped that the blood samples in the Lancet research were taken as long as two days after the executions -- which accounted for the dubious results. Connecticut's chief medical examiner later took samples of an executed serial killer 20 minutes after the killer was pronounced dead. His blood showed 29.6 milligrams per liter of the drug, the Hartford Courant reported, but only 9.4 milligrams per liter when blood was drawn seven hours later.

Attorneys for Michael Morales, who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 17-year-old Terri Winchell in Lodi, Calif., in 1981, cited The Lancet article as they sought to delay his scheduled execution. They succeeded. In February 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Jeremey Fogel blocked all executions in California pending new execution protocols.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will present a new lethal injection protocol to the court on May 15. As Morales can attest, the safest man in America is a death-row inmate with a pending appeal.

At the time, I spoke with anesthesiologist Robert E. Hertzka, who told me it was "inconceivable" that an inmate would feel pain from a properly administered lethal-injection. Hertzka, I should note, has testified for the California Medical Association in Sacramento against allowing doctors in the execution chamber.

Now PLoS has come up with "chemical asphyxiation" followed by a question mark -- which is a high-sounding way of complaining that the wrong drug might have killed convicted murderers. If the article provides anything, it was something no lover of medical research would intend to prove: that medical research can be as over-politicized as any other field.

And that when activists want to find a doctor to say something that defies all reason, it can be done. If you can't beat the death penalty at the ballot box, you can find doctors who will write favorable research in a professional journal.

Considering that lethal-injection delivers three lethal doses of lethal drugs, starting with 12.5 times the amount of sodium pentothal needed to start a surgery, you have to wonder: Do those who argue that lethal injection is painful think that judges and voters are stupid?

Or do they think that you have to be really smart -- or think you are really smart -- to buy into an argument so patently false?

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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