Diane Dimond: Getting our act together on the death penalty

Diane Dimond

If we, as a nation, are going to allow the execution of convicted murderers, rapists and traitors, can’t we get our act together about how to take their lives?

Back in 2010, European countries began a movement to abolish the death penalty around the world. European pharmaceutical companies began to refuse to sell any anesthetics to the U.S. that could be used to facilitate an execution. And that left our prisons, in the more than 30 states that carry out the death penalty, without easy access to the medications needed to kill the condemned.

Since then these states have used a mish-mash of drugs to carry out executions. Some have used a two-drug or three-drug cocktail, administered in stages. The first stage is designed to render the convicts unconscious so they feel no pain as other heart-stopping drugs are introduced. Other states use just one drug, such as pentobarbital, but that has also begun to be difficult to procure. One state, Missouri, announced it would use propofol — the anesthetic cited in the death of entertainer Michael Jackson — but then revised its lethal injection procedure before doing so.

Midazolam, hydromorphone, sodium thiopental, the barbiturate anesthetic Brevital … all part of the grand experiment our penal institutions have used in this modern-day quest to carry out “humane executions.” Sounds like an oxymoron to me.

This is not the place to argue about the pros or cons of the death penalty. According to the latest Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans are in favor of capital punishment. (Although, it should be noted that number has tumbled since the mid-90s when 80 percent favored the idea.)

So it goes, majority rules. So, when do we get our collective act together and figure out a single best way to do this that is beyond reproach? Why have we dithered and experimented with it for so long? If we truly support the idea of the death penalty, we should certainly agree on an acceptable process.

The U.S. Supreme Court now says it will hear a challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection practices. And the justices stayed the pending execution of the three Oklahoma convicts whose names appear on the case. That state employs a commonly used three-drug protocol that relies on Midazolam as the first drug. Lawyers for the condemned will argue that the drug is unreliable and has the potential to cause terrible suffering. They’ll say that the procedure violates a citizen’s constitutional right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment.

I know, I know — those facing the executioner have made others suffer in oftentimes incomprehensible ways. Why should we care if they suffer a bit as they die? Why do we hear so much about a convict’s rights at the time of execution and so little about the grisly crime for which they were convicted?

Again, this is not the place to argue the penalty. Rather, we should discuss a unified process for carrying out the law.

The high court will decide on Oklahoma’s procedure, but it will do nothing concrete that guides the nation toward a unified way to execute its worst criminals. I guess we have to demand that.

In the past, I’ve suggested a return to the firing squad, although I’m no ardent supporter of the death penalty. A firing squad would be fast, efficient, no fuss or muss. But if we’re determined to painlessly put to sleep our convicts with a lethal injection, how about using a massive dose of heroin? Heaven knows every state and the federal government has an ample supply of the confiscated drug that brings death so quickly, addicts are often found with the needle still in their arm. (Actor Seymour Hoffman to name just one.)

Anesthesiologists successfully put thousands of people into states of unconsciousness every day, so why can’t executioners? We euthanize our ailing pets, but would the drug cocktail a veterinarian uses even work on humans? Is anyone studying this?

As one vet wrote to the editor of the New York Times, “If we MUST persist in executing people, how about we convene a panel of MDs, get some good options, and then pass a law making it illegal for drug companies to refuse to provide the drugs?”

I’m not sure such a law could be passed, but I know its way past time for this discussion to take place.

If we can’t discuss it — maybe we should stop doing it.

Website: www.DianeDimond.com