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UM Researchers Question Lethal Injection as a Form of Capital Punishment


             A letter written by researchers at the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine and published in The Lancet raises serious questions about lethal injection as a form of capital punishment. The letter in the April 16th edition of the prestigious international journal describes compelling evidence of inadequate anesthesia during executions.
             Lethal injection generally consists of the sequential administration of sodium thiopental for anesthesia, pancuronium bromide to induce paralysis, and finally potassium chloride to stop the heart and cause death. Without anesthesia, the condemned person would experience suffocation and excruciating pain without being able to move or communicate that fact. 
             “Unlike in medical applications, anesthesia in execution has not been subjected to clinical trials or government regulation, nor have the practitioners received even basic training to do this,” says David A. Lubarsky, M.D., M.B.A., professor and chairman of the UM Department of Anesthesiology and one of the letter’s authors. “This caused us to wonder whether anesthesia methodology in lethal injection might be inadequate.” 
              The research team, which also included University of Miami faculty Teresa Zimmers, Ph.D., and Leonidas G. Koniaris, M.D., and Virginia attorney Jonathan Sheldon who specializes in the legal defense of the condemned, used a combination of state records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, along with personal interviews and sworn testimony of corrections officials involved in executions in Virginia and Texas.
They also obtained autopsy toxicology results from 49 executions in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
               “The practice of lethal injection for execution perverts the tools of medicine and the trust the public has in drugs and clinical protocols. Although executioners use an anesthetic, the current dosages and means of administration do not assure that inmates are senseless to pain, particularly because inmates are not monitored for level of consciousness or depth of anesthesia,” said Leonidas G. Koniaris, M.D., associate professor of clinical surgery, cell biology and anatomy, and lead author of the letter.
              “We found that 43 of 49 executed inmates had post-mortem blood anesthesia levels below that required for surgery, while 21 of those inmates had levels that were consistent with awareness,” said Teresa Zimmers, Ph.D., research assistant professor of surgery who analyzed the data for the research. 
              “This study provides strong evidence that anesthesia methodology in lethal injection is flawed and that some inmates likely experienced awareness and profound suffering during execution,” said Jonathan Sheldon. “While some think that the condemned deserve to suffer, our society long ago rejected the unnecessary infliction of pain in execution because it is contrary to our 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
               The researchers point out that physicians are ethically prohibited from participating in an execution, so adequate anesthesia cannot be assured by physicians actively overseeing the process. For that reason, they believe that until better protocols are developed and tested and those delivering the executions are better trained to assure it is performed in a humane and competent fashion, execution by lethal injection should be stopped to prevent unnecessary cruelty and suffering.


Media Contact: Jeanne Antol Krull
April 14, 2005