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Originally published Friday, April 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Study indicates lethal injections may cause pain, suffering

Death by lethal injection, adopted in 37 states as a painless method of execution, actually might inflict enormous suffering on the condemned...

Los Angeles Times

Death by lethal injection, adopted in 37 states as a painless method of execution, actually might inflict enormous suffering on the condemned because of a routine failure to use enough anesthetic, according to a study of death-row autopsies.

An examination of 49 autopsies found that in 43 cases, the concentration of anesthetic in the bloodstream was less than what is required to numb a surgical patient before making an incision. In 21 cases, the concentration wasn't sufficient to prevent a patient from responding to a verbal command.

Because other chemicals are used to induce paralysis, inmates do not outwardly appear to suffer during their executions. But the toxicology data indicate that the condemned might be fully aware as they are dying, according to the study to appear in tomorrow's edition of the medical journal Lancet.

"We know you need a certain amount of this drug in your blood to be asleep, and when this drug was measured in people a short time after they were killed, it wasn't enough," said Dr. David Lubarsky, chairman of the department of anesthesiology at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center and one of the study's authors.

The findings are significant because lethal injection has been embraced as a humane method of executing prisoners. According to Gallup polls, 75 percent of Americans believe states should be allowed to administer lethal injections, while only 21 percent say it is cruel-and-unusual punishment.

Objections to lethal injection have been rising among death-row inmates, who have filed claims in many states arguing that the procedure violates the Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel-and-unusual punishment.

Last year, a state judge in New Jersey ordered a halt to executions there until the Department of Corrections sorted out medical issues related to the procedure. A judge in Kentucky will consider similar claims at a hearing on Monday.

The three-part regimen of sodium thiopental for anesthesia, pancuronium bromide to induce paralysis and potassium chloride to stop the heart was developed in 1977 by an Oklahoma state legislator who opposed the death penalty and wanted to impose it as humanely and painlessly as possible.

Around the country, 789 people have been executed by lethal injection since then, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research group.

States typically administer 2 grams of sodium thiopental at the beginning of an execution, enough to keep a 220-pound man anesthetized for at least 10 minutes, according to the Lancet study. But many executions last more than 10 minutes, according to the study.

And if a mistake is made by the person charged with inserting the IV line — typically a medic or other technician rather than a doctor or nurse — the amount of anesthetic that gets into the bloodstream might be less than 2 grams, it said.

In addition, a fearful inmate would require more anesthetic than a typical surgical patient, as would an inmate with a history of drug abuse.

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