Particular condemnation might be cast upon the practice of using untried methods on unwilling human subjects--an ethical breach made acceptable only because the recipients are already condemned to die. Those who probe a little further might be shocked to find that the death row inmates were first kept in locked-down cells for 23 hours a day for 15 to 20 years before being led to the execution chambers.
Earlier this year, the smooth running of the death penalty was jolted by an announcement from the sole manufacturer of a key drug used by all death penalty states that it was ending production. States scrambled to find sources of the drug, sodium thiopental, overseas or to find a substitute drug here in the U.S. A dingy storefront housing a driving school in London proved to be a goldmine for several states desperate to keep executions on schedule. In the back of the building was a tiny pharmaceutical distributor called Dream Pharma that willingly sent thiopental to the U.S. for executions.
Despite the fact that these drugs were never examined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (which constantly warns consumers about the dangers of counterfeit drugs from questionable sources), they were quickly used in executions in Georgia and Arizona. Great Britain was embarrassed and has taken steps to bar all future exports for a practice that they routinely condemn. The FDA has been sued for its inaction in allowing the drug into the country.
But the experiments go on. There are now four different methods of lethal injection being used in the U.S., even though there has yet to be a national review of what would be the most humane approach. Some states like Ohio are trying single drugs, others like Texas are substituting pentobarbital as part of a three-drug regimen. Since the inmates almost always die at the end of these routines, there is little medical evidence of what the inmate is experiencing.
(Not all the inmates have died: in 2009 Ohio tried to execute Romell Broom for 2 straight hours, poking him with needles until the process was mercifully stopped. Broom remains on death row.)
All the inmates on death row were convicted of despicable crimes. But that fact cannot absolve governments, or the people they represent, from the duty to treat prisoners humanely. The international human rights community is becoming increasingly concerned about the death penalty in the U.S., much as the world focused on apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.
The problems of the death penalty are much broader than the questionable methods used in executions. The risk of executing the innocent, the random unfairness with which it is applied, and the exorbitant costs that deprive worthwhile programs of critical funds, are all leading to a re-evaluation of the death penalty here in the U.S.
Last week Illinois became the latest state to end this practice, recognizing that this broken system could not be fixed. Perhaps their lethal injection table will soon find its way into a museum as well.
Richard C. Dieter is the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.