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Lethal Injections Called Flawed

Inmates May Feel Pain, Study Finds

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page A08

Some prisoners executed by lethal injection might be so inadequately sedated that they are awake enough to suffer agonizingly painful deaths, according to a study.

Researchers who studied blood samples of inmates after executions found that more than 40 percent contained levels of anesthesia so low that the prisoners might have been conscious during their executions. They also found that executioners in Virginia and Texas, homes to the nation's busiest death chambers, were not trained to administer anesthesia.

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The authors of the study, published this week in the British medical journal the Lancet, called for a moratorium on lethal injections.

"There seems to be a significant fraction of the condemned who are aware" when injected, said Leonidas G. Koniaris, associate professor of surgery at the University of Miami and the study's lead author. "Very few were actually at a sufficient level to qualify as a properly done animal euthanization."

The study lends scientific backing to arguments that defense lawyers have lodged in courts in Virginia, Maryland and across the nation. Their appeals have challenged the trio of chemicals typically used in lethal injections -- especially one that paralyzes the muscles -- as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. Critics argue that the paralyzing agent, which several states have banned veterinarians from using, might mask severe pain.

Some death penalty opponents say the findings could prompt legislatures and courts, which largely have rejected appeals based on the constitutionality of lethal injection, to reconsider.

"This study forces it very much out in the open," said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "Judges would have to say this is not what the legislatures intended. . . . There's no excuse for irrational cruelty."

Emily Lucier, a spokeswoman for interim Virginia Attorney General Judith W. Jagdmann (R), rejected the idea of a moratorium.

"This argument is nothing new, and the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected it 15 times in eight states just last year, and all were executed," Lucier said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not directly addressed whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. Britain has no death penalty.

Lethal injection, the most common method of execution, generally consists of a sequence of three drugs: one that anesthetizes, a second that paralyzes and a third that stops the heart. Without proper anesthesia, the study says, inmates would endure suffocation and extreme pain.

In Texas and Virginia, where nearly half the nation's executions occur, the researchers found that poorly trained executioners administered the chemicals from behind a curtain or from another room, preventing them from assessing inmates' awareness levels. Neither state collected data on lethal injections, documented the anesthesia or conducted peer reviews.

The study analyzed autopsy toxicology reports from 49 inmates executed in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. (Texas and Virginia refused to release such data, Koniaris said.) In 43 cases, concentrations of thiopental, the anesthetic, in the blood were lower than what is required for surgery. In 21, the levels "were consistent with consciousness," the study says.

There is disagreement about how to interpret the anesthesia concentrations in blood samples taken during an autopsy. Mark Dershwitz, a University of Massachusetts anesthesiologist, said that researchers do not know what the right levels should be and that the study therefore misrepresents the data.

"To argue that a large dose of thiopental will not reliably result in unconsciousness is just scientifically dishonest," Dershwitz said.

Koniaris said he and his team were confident in their results.

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