The Mechanics of Death by Lethal Injection

May 04, 2007

I recently read Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance which I reviewed on DesiCritics). One of the passages that fascinated me entirely describes the process by which a lethal injection is administered.

It's quite morbid - but an education worth the time if only it means understanding the debate around the humaneness of the capital punishment du jour. A lot of the information here is sourced from Gawande's book and Wikipedia.

The protocol was proposed by Oklahoma State Medical Examiner Jay Chapman in 1977 and validated by Dr. Stanley Deutsch, then Chairman of Anesthesiology at the University of Oklahoma. And considering death by shooting (too unreliable), hanging (too grisly) or electrocution (not humane enough), this has emerged as the primary way of executing death row inmates in the US and increasingly, other countries as well.

It involves three drugs administered in sequence.

The first one that goes in is between 2.5 to 5 grams of Sodium Thiopental, which is about 5 to 10 times the recommended maximum for therapeutic use. This causes a loss of consciousness in about 10 seconds. Sodium Thiopental is a short lived anesthetic, spreading to the brain first, but then distributing itself across the body causing the patient to regain consciousness. But in this quantity, it causes respiratory arrest and circulatory collapse. In other words, it will likely kill you in 15 minutes.

After about one minute, this is followed by 60 to 100 mg of Pancuronium Bromide. This is a muscle relaxant when administered in doses of 6 to 10 mg. The bigger dose essentially causes paralysis. It is also the drug debated the most by critics of death by lethal injection. Pancuronium Bromide can potentially dilute the Sodium Thiopental, causing the patient to wake up but unable to respond to pain because of the induced paralysis.

Finally 120 to 240 milli-equivalents of Potassium Chloride are administered. This pushes up the resting electrical activity of the heart muscle resulting in ventricular fibrillation. Eventually this will cause an asystolic cardiac arrest.

Thirty-seven states in the US use death by lethal injection. Texas leads the pack with 379 by the end of last year.

Aspi grew up in India and lives in Chicago. He is average at everything, except Math, at which he is terrible. He blogs on a variety of topics, including cricket.
eXTReMe Tracker
Keep reading for comments on this article and add some feedback of your own!

The Mechanics of Death by Lethal Injection


Author: Aspi


Comments! Feedback! Speak and be heard!

Comment on this article or leave feedback for the author

Add your comment

(Or ping: http://desicritics.org/tb/5236)

Personal attacks are not allowed. Please read our comment policy.

Remember Name/URL?

Please preview your comment!