Ty Alper, San Jose Mercury News
By Ty Alper, San Jose Mercury News.
On Tuesday, California prison officials will hear public comment on their proposed procedures for conducting lethal-injection executions. Although officials claim their goal is to achieve humane executions, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation plans to stick with a three-drug protocol that risks just the opposite.
The protocol is so fraught with danger that it would be illegal to use to euthanize a dog or cat in this state.
It involves the administration of three drugs: first, an anesthetic; second, a drug that paralyzes the inmate; and third, potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Activists have denounced the practice of paralyzing inmates before executing them, and for good reason. Executioners are typically not qualified to administer anesthesia, let alone monitor the inmate’s reaction to the drug throughout the execution. If the inmate is paralyzed and the anesthesia fails, he will feel the excruciating burn of the potassium chloride as it scorches through his veins, but will be unable to indicate he is in pain. His death will appear peaceful, and the public will never know that yet another execution has been botched.
Such a procedure would be illegal if used on animals in California. Even when accompanied by anesthesia, paralytic drugs are generally banned in euthanasia because of the risk that failed anesthesia can go undetected in a paralyzed animal. For that reason, a shelter worker who administers a paralytic during animal euthanasia is guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a $2,000 fine and a year in jail. That’s been the law in this state since 1978.
For the past three decades, the primary method of animal euthanasia in California has been a simple, one-drug procedure: the overdose of a barbiturate called sodium pentobarbital. This method causes a painless death, usually within a few minutes. When it revised the law in 1998 to outlaw another dangerous euthanasia method — carbon monoxide — the California Senate Judiciary Committee wrote that “there is a general consensus that a lethal injection of sodium pentobarbital is the most humane way to euthanize unwanted dogs and cats.”
California is not alone. Euthanasia by use of a single drug — sodium pentobarbital — is the preferred method of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society of the United States, and every major animal welfare organization in the country. The vast majority of states — 42 out of 50 — prohibit the use of paralytics in animal euthanasia.
If this method of killing is unconscionable for animals, why does California insist on using it to execute people? Prison officials cannot claim ignorance. There are decades, even centuries, of evidence that these drugs have the potential to inflict a painful and horrifying death.
In 1868, a Swedish physiologist described paralytic drugs as “the most cruel of all poisons.” In the 1970s, military officers in the Philippines, Brazil and Uruguay used paralytics to torture political prisoners. The Humane Society’s current training manual states that its members have a “moral and ethical duty” to end the practice of injecting animals with paralytic drugs.
Some Californians believe that inmates should suffer the same painful death that they inflicted on their victims. We cannot deny the grief and rage that accounts for these emotions, but the Constitution requires humane executions. It is time to abandon a drug that has been used to torture both people and animals, and has been rejected by veterinary and animal welfare communities for decades.
TY ALPER is the associate director of the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law, and is the author of “Anesthetizing the Public Conscience: Lethal Injection and Animal Euthanasia.” He wrote this article for the Mercury News.