Oklahoma's Lethal Injection Process Not Fit for Animals

By Ty Alper, The Oklahoman

There's been lots of talk recently about Oklahoma's desire to switch to a drug used in animal euthanasia during its next scheduled execution, due to a national shortage of the drug it usually employs. Predictably, reaction to the state's move has been all over the map.

But one key point is getting lost in the shuffle: Even with this change, Oklahoma's lethal injection process is nothing like animal euthanasia. In fact, it would be illegal to euthanize an animal in Oklahoma the way the state intends to execute John Duty on Dec. 16.

Keep in mind the proposed switch is to the first drug in Oklahoma's three-drug lethal injection procedure. The first drug is an anesthetic, intended to ensure that the inmate does not experience the effects of the second drug, which paralyzes him, and the third drug, which stops the heart.

The decision to paralyze inmates before executing them with the third drug presents a fundamental problem. If the anesthetic is not delivered properly (and ample evidence suggests the danger of maladministration is real), the inmate will likely experience excruciating pain and suffering.

However, because he is paralyzed, he will be unable to cry out or even blink an eyelid to signal that the anesthesia has failed. The paralytic virtually ensures that the execution looks “peaceful” when it may have been anything but.

It is for this reason that 42 out of 50 states have banned the use of paralyzing agents in animal euthanasia. Oklahoma is one of nine states that has done so explicitly. State law prohibits — in animal euthanasia — the use of “curariform derivative drugs,” which is the technical term for paralyzing agents. The law, passed in 1981, allows any method of animal euthanasia that the Department of Agriculture approves, but singles out one class of drug as unacceptable under any circumstances: the precise kind of drug Oklahoma uses in lethal injection executions.

The Humane Society of the United States also condemns the use of paralyzing drugs in animal euthanasia. The foreword to its training manual states that it is the “moral and ethical duty” of its members to end the practice of “injecting animals with curare-based or paralytic substances.” Yet a paralytic drug is used to execute people in Oklahoma, and all but two other death penalty states.

Oklahoma has proposed substituting the drug it usually uses as an anesthetic for pentobarbital, a medication widely used in hospital settings as well as in veterinary practice. It is indeed the preferred drug in animal euthanasia in Oklahoma and most other states. Whether it is appropriate to employ pentobarbital in lethal injections is an open question, and is currently the subject of a lawsuit in federal court.

But regardless of what drug it uses in an attempt to anesthetize condemned prisoners during executions, Oklahoma still intends to paralyze them.

Nobody should be under the impression that Oklahoma executes people as humanely as it euthanizes animals. 12/4/2010