Overview: Lethal Injections

Wednesday, November 21, 2007; 6:32 PM

The Controversy

State corrections officials say lethal injection is a sound, scientifically tested and suitable alternative to the electric chair. They assert that challenges to the method are often attempts by death penalty opponents to end capital punishment. Death penalty opponents plan to argue that the three-chemical cocktail used by most of the 37 states that carry out lethal injection immobilizes the condemned, masking the pain they feel before they die. They say the process violates the Eighth Amendment's ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Issue

The Supreme Court will rule on whether the protocol of administering lethal injection, the method used in nearly every state with the death penalty, violates the Eighth Amendment by causing the inmate to experience torture while being executed. The Court announced Sept. 25, 2007, that it would review a Kentucky case, Baze v. Rees, where inmates Ralph Baze and Thomas C. Bowling, both convicted of double murders, challenged the state's lethal injection protocols, saying they violated federal and state constitutions. Until the high court issues a final ruling, the court and lower courts may be more receptive to requests to delay such executions, at least for defendants whose cases raise no procedural issues. It will be the justices' first consideration of whether a particular method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment since an 1879 ruling upholding the use of a firing squad.

The Process

In the procedure followed by most states, the condemned inmate is strapped to a gurney and sedated with sodium thiopental, a barbiturate intended to render the inmate unconscious at the start of the procedure. The inmate is then injected with pancuronium bromide to collapse the diaphragm and lungs, and administered potassium chloride to stop the heart.


States began using lethal injection in 1978 as a more humane alternative to electrocution or the gas chamber. Today, 37 of the 38 states that allow the death penalty use lethal injection as the primary method. In the past several weeks, the courts halted lethal injection executions in Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia and Florida but refused to delay others in Texas and Georgia. The number of executions across the country fell from a peak of 98 in 2000 to 53 last year.

Source: The Washington Post

© 2007 The Washington Post Company