Method of Execution

Montana’s sole method of statutory execution is lethal injection. (Prior to the adoption of lethal injection, the state used death by hanging).

The following is an excerpt from Human Rights Watch’s report, “So Long as They Die: Lethal Injections in the United States.”

Different methods of execution have succeeded one another throughout the twentieth century in the United States, as changing public opinion and sensitivities has led public officials to reject older methods in favor of newer ones. At the time of their introduction, the electric chair and lethal gas were both touted as more humane forms of execution compared to earlier methods. Each, however, proved cruel. Electrocution, in particular, shocked witnesses when, for example, prisoners erupted in flames.

In the late 1970s, states turned to lethal injection, believing this was both a less expensive as well as a more humane way to kill condemned inmates. In 1977, Oklahoma legislators passed the first lethal injection statute. Texas passed a lethal injection statue the next day. By 1981, five states had adopted lethal injection statutes. Today, thirty-seven of the thirty-eight death penalty states have lethal injection statutes. In nineteen states, lethal injection is the only method of execution allowed.

States in the United States rely almost solely on lethal injections to execute condemned inmates. All twelve executions to date (as of April 1, 2006) have been by lethal injection, as were all sixty in 2005. Of the 1,016 executions in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 848 were by lethal injection—three by the federal government and the rest by states. At the start of 2006, there were 3,373 prisoners on death row—3,363 of whom face the possibility of a lethal injection execution.

The statutes of fifteen states use language similar to Oklahoma’s, requiring the use of a “lethal quantity of an ultra-short acting barbiturate or other similar drug in combination with a chemical paralytic to cause death.” It is not clear if the legislators intended the prisoner to die from the anesthetic or from the asphyxiation caused by the paralytic agent, or both.

According to Dr. Jay Chapman, the architect of Oklahoma’s two-drug statute, he “didn’t care which drug killed the prisoner, as long as one of them did.”

Thirteen states refer to an injection of a “substance or substances in a quantity to cause death” or language very close to that wording. Seven states provide simply for the use of “lethal injection” executions. Two state statutes use slightly different language from all the rest. Only one state statute mandates corrections officials to choose among lethal injection options to find the most humane procedure possible.

Despite the variations in state statutory language authorizing lethal injections, thirty-six state corrections agencies today use the same three-drug sequence of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride in their lethal injection drug protocols.

No state statute prescribes drug dosages and the specific methods of administration; legislators have left these decisions to corrections officials. Nor does any state statute prescribe the manner of intravenous line access, the certification or training required for those who participate in executions, or other details concerning the administration of the drugs or monitoring of the procedures.

Legislators have given correctional agencies the authority “to promulgate necessary rules and regulations to facilitate the implementation of execution by lethal injection.” For example, in Florida the legislature did not specify how death by lethal injection would be accomplished, but left this decision up to the Department of Corrections, “because it has personnel better qualified to make such determinations.”

The public record offers scant insight into the basis on which state legislatures that chose specific lethal injection drugs did so. An analysis of state statutes and legislative histories provides no evidence that legislatures—other than possibly Oklahoma—relied on, or even sought input from, medical and scientific experts. Rather, they simply copied the protocols developed by their colleagues from other states.

Lethal Injection Drugs

Thirty-two states use the same three-drug sequence for lethal injections: sodium thiopental to render the condemned inmate unconscious; pancuronium bromide to paralyze the condemned inmate’s voluntary muscles; and potassium chloride to rapidly induce cardiac arrest and cause death.

This three-drug sequence puts the prisoner at risk of high levels of pain and suffering. If he is not appropriately anesthetized, he will be awake when he is paralyzed by the pancuronium bromide and will experience suffocation when he is not able to breathe. If the anesthesia remains insufficient, he will experience excruciating pain from the potassium chloride. Nevertheless, according to Human Rights Watch’s research, no state which has used these three drugs for lethal injections has ever changed to different drugs.

Lethal Injection Procedures

“You guys doing that right?” — Stanley “Tookie” Williams, at his December 14, 2005 execution, to a medical technician who, sweating and pale, spent eleven minutes probing Williams’s arm before she successfully established an intravenous line.

The key to any claim that the standard three-drug lethal injection execution is not cruel is that the anesthesia renders the inmate unconscious and unable to feel pain before the other drugs are administered. Yet corrections officials do not ensure the anesthesia is effectively administered.

During surgery, a trained anesthesiologist remains at the patient’s side to determine whether the patient has reached the proper level of unconsciousness before the surgery proceeds, and to ensure the patient remains unconscious for the duration of the procedure. For reasons that remain unclear, however, state corrections agencies have not incorporated into their lethal injection executions the same safeguards that accompany the administration of anesthesia in medical procedures.

State lethal injection protocols do not require execution teams to include persons trained in administering anesthesia, do not permit personnel to be close enough to the condemned inmate to monitor the administration of the anesthesia, and do not use trained personnel to determine whether the condemned inmate is properly anesthetized before the other two drugs are injected.

The basic procedure states use in lethal injection executions is as follows: The condemned prisoner is brought to the execution chamber and strapped to a gurney. Some states allow the witnesses to watch the executioner(s) insert the catheter into the prisoner’s arm. Other states draw a curtain over the windows behind which the witnesses sit so they do not see the execution team insert the catheter into the condemned inmate. The catheter is hooked up to an intravenous line that extends for at least several feet into the room where the execution team administers the injections. That room or space may or may not have a one-way mirror so that the executioners can look out at the prisoner without being seen. If the curtains were closed, they are opened.

Witnesses see the prisoner alone in the chamber, already hooked up to the intravenous (IV) lines. The execution team, which consists of one or more people, will have prepared syringes with the drugs and syringes with saline solution used to flush the lines in between each drug. Upon a signal from the warden, the team begins injecting the syringes into the IV lines, one after another, in the prescribed sequence, without a break.

Some states use a more complicated procedure. For example, in Oklahoma, catheters are inserted into both arms. Three executioners plunge eleven syringes in a complicated sequence, alternating the drugs between the left and right arms.

It is not known who, if anyone, directs the sequence of drug administration for the executioners. The process is then repeated by injecting a second round of drugs. By the end of the process, the prisoner should have received two doses of sodium thiopental through the left arm, two doses of pancuronium bromide through the right arm, and two doses of potassium chloride (one dose through each arm).

Oklahoma’s current method of administering the lethal drugs differs from that originally developed by Chapman. The protocol Chapman developed called for a continuous infusion of sodium thiopental and did not split the drugs between the two arms. His protocol also called for observation of the IV site. These protections no longer exist in the current Oklahoma protocol. It is not clear whether Oklahoma ever executed its inmates using Chapman’s protocol, or when and why the changes where made.

When Human Rights Watch asked Chapman if he had concerns about the ways states today were administering lethal injection executions, he noted, “The question [of the drugs] being administered properly, that never came up in my mind. I never knew we would have complete idiots injecting these drugs. Which we seem to have.”

The attempts by condemned prisoners to discover the information through litigation have been rebuffed by the state’s refusal to answer questions posed in the plaintiff’s depositions and interrogatories.

A number of lethal injection executions have gone terribly, visibly wrong. Michael Radelet, a professor of sociology and law, has compiled a list of thirty-six “botched executions,” which he defines as executions where there is the appearance of “prolonged suffering” on the part of the condemned inmate “for twenty minutes or more.”

Because states do not make public, maintain, or even keep records of their executions, this list was developed from media reports. There may be other botched executions that were never reported. In addition, there is no way to know how many prisoners killed by lethal injections suffered needlessly, but invisibly, because of inadequate anesthesia masked by a neuromuscular blocking agent.

Ron Waterman, Montana Attorney on Montana’s Lethal Injection Ed Sheehy, Montana Public Defense Attorney, on Montana’s Lethal Injection Method