Dying Like a Dog?

Written by J.D. King

I always get excited when obscure issues of criminal procedure find their way into popular culture.  Last week, the issue of expired sodium thiopental was featured on both the CBS drama, “The Good Wife” and Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”  Most states now use a three-drug formula to execute prisoners, the first of which is the anesthetic sodium thiopental.  As that drug has become increasingly scarce, however, states seeking to execute their prisoners have had to get creative.  Last week, Oklahoma made international news when it substituted pentobarbital for sodium thiopental in the execution of John Duty.  The controversy around Oklahoma’s use of pentobarbital arose because the drug is commonly used to euthanize animals, but had apparently never been used to execute a human in the United States.

The debate over whether it is inhumane to use an “animal drug” in capital punishment, however, may be misplaced, as my friend Ty Alper points out in a recent op-ed piece.  Ty argues that we euthanize animals in this country in a much more humane way than any state executes its prisoners.  With the exception of two states, every state that uses capital punishment goes about it in roughly the same way: a three-drug cocktail.  The first drug anesthetizes, the second drug paralyzes, and the third drug stops the heart from beating.  Because the second drug used paralyzes the condemned, we have no way of knowing whether the process is excruciatingly painful or humanely and painlessly carried out.  If the first drug is improperly administered, there is no way of knowing if the prisoner is feeling pain.

As Ty has argued, this practice of applying a paralytic agent would be illegal in almost every state if it were used to put down a dog.  Why, then, does almost every state that executes prisoners, continue to use a paralytic agent as part of its three-drug cocktail?  Maybe what should be drawing people’s attention is not that Oklahoma may have inhumanely used an “animal drug” to execute a human but that Oklahoma and other states continue to use execution methods that are not humane enough to put down an animal.