The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New execution protocol similar to doctor-assisted suicide recommended

In this November 2005 file photo, the combinations and sequence for lethal injection drugs are posted on a wall in a room next to the death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)
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Days after the botched execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett, a bipartisan committee studying the death penalty has recommended a new one-drug lethal injection method to kill quickly and “minimize the risk of pain or suffering.”

The committee, formed by the Constitution Project long before the Lockett execution, urged states to administer an overdose of one anesthetic or barbiturate to cause death — the same method used in doctor-assisted suicides. (To read the report, click here.)

This method would replace a three-drug lethal injection protocol currently used by most states that employ the death penalty.

Lockett died last Tuesday from a heart attack 43 minutes after he received what was supposed to be a lethal injection, reportedly because his vein “exploded.” It was just one in a series of bungled execution attempts in the past few years.

Executions have become increasingly difficult for states to carry out because licensed physicians are unwilling to participate in them on ethical grounds while pharmaceuticals companies that market the most-tested drugs have cut off supplies. States have been forced to experiment with compounds from suppliers they refuse to identify.

Some controversial drug combinations have resulted in disaster.

The first drug used in the three-drug combination for lethal injections is either pentobarbital (or, formerly, sodium thiopental), which acts as an anesthetic. The second, pancuronium bromide, is a paralytic agent. And the third, potassium chloride, stops the heart, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

According to the Project committee’s report:

A one-drug method would decrease the problems associated with drug administration and eliminate the risks from using paralyzing or painful chemical agents.

Furthermore, the report states, states should base their decisions on the most recent scientific data about the effects of such drugs rather than on the availability of those drugs alone.

The report also details recommendations regarding “transparency in the development and administration of lethal injection protocols,” using 0nly drugs that are “obtained in compliance with all laws and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in humans” and ensuring medical professionals “are present at executions.”

The method of execution was just one part of the Project’s broad report on the administration of capital punishment. The co-chairs of the committee are Gerald Kogan, former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, Mark White, former governor of Texas, and Beth A. Wilkinson, a former Justice Department prosecutor who handled the Oklahoma City bombing case.