Deborah Denno speaks to WBUR Here and Now on the humanity and constitutionality of lethal injections after a botched execution in Oklahoma, in which the inmate died of a heart attack 43 minutes after his lethal injection.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Deborah Denno, who has published a series of papers on lethal injection.
Denno says lethal injections are constitutional in theory, but highly problematic in practice.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, joining us now for more on this issue is Deborah Denno, professor of law at Fordham University. She’s a leading researcher on lethal injections. Professor Denno, welcome.
DEBORAH DENNO: Thank you.
HOBSON: And based on what we’ve heard there and what you know of what happened in this case in Oklahoma, what do you think went wrong?
DENNO: It’s hard to know. I think it’s sheer speculation at this point, as the individual was saying. So I guess we’ll just have to wait. There really certainly is a need for a thorough and independent investigation.
HOBSON: Well, tell us about how these lethal injections are supposed to go. In an ideal world, if everything goes right, as it’s supposed to, what’s supposed to happen?
DENNO: Well, of course now we have several different kinds of lethal injection executions, all involving different amounts or different types of drugs. But generally, irrespective of what kind you’re using, the drugs are supposed to be injected in an inmate in sequence, and the injection process should be over within the course of about four minutes.
HOBSON: So what’s going on? What is happening? Because this is not an isolated incident.
DENNO: It’s certainly not an isolated incident, and when you look over the course of lethal injection over its history of 32 years, you see a growth pattern of problems, and they’ve only gotten worse. So several things are happening. Number one, states are scrambling for drugs. They’re experimenting in a way that they never have in the history of lethal injection, particularly in the last four of five years, and we’re seeing the repercussions of that.
Number two, when you have this kind of experimentation with people who are not properly trained or don’t know sufficiently about these drugs, you get botches of the like that we saw last evening. And irrespective of how you feel on the death penalty, no one wants to promote or support incompetence, and that’s what happened.
But number three, it always bears reminding that this is a punishment. It’s not a hospital procedure. So we’re going to have all the constraints that someone would have in a punishment situation in a prison. You’re not going to have a doctor or a trained anesthesiologist, generally speaking, for the most part, as far as we know, and we’re going to have ill-trained people in a bad setting, not a hospital, and a person who’s being – who’s going to be killed rather than saved.
And they may be reacting physically to that.
HOBSON: Yeah, you talk about an instance in Missouri, in which a surgeon was involved in administering the lethal injection but was dyslexic.
DENNO: Well, that’s right. I mean, Missouri, it was revealed simply because they were having so many botched executions, Missouri was having a surgeon who was heavily involved in 54 of their executions. As it turned out, however, that physician wasn’t able to practice in any hospital in the state and – because he was so incompetent, and he testified on the stand, when they had an evidentiary hearing, that he was dyslexic, and he could never be sure that he measured the drugs properly.
So, you know, this is the kind of person we’re dealing with when we’re thinking of our executioners or the people who are mixing those drugs.
HOBSON: The other problem that you brought up was that the drugs themselves are hard to come by these days, that many companies don’t want their name associated with lethal injections and that the European Union, for example, doesn’t want to export drugs that are used in capital punishment.
DENNO: That’s right, and there’s several things going on. First of all, we have a nationwide drug shortage irrespective of the lethal injection or death penalty issue. We – a GAO report just came out showing a decline in the availability of all sorts of drugs from 2008 to 2013. But as you were pointing out, when Department of Corrections started to go to Europe or other countries to get drugs, those countries (unintelligible) they want nothing to do with our execution process or with the death penalty.
And number three, Department of Corrections have started going to compounding pharmacies, and this is what has fueled some of those – that secrecy. Departments and the state think that a pharmacist is not going to want to be revealed if it’s known that they participated in our death penalty process.
HOBSON: So if there were – is there a drug out there that could be used that would be the right thing to use for lethal injections, and they just can’t get it right now because nobody wants to sell it to them?
DENNO: Well, I think there are two things going on. They can’t get the drugs that are probably the best to use in a procedure like this. But number two, this is not just about the drugs. I mean, the drugs are such a small part of it, and we focus on it because they’ve been such a, you know, obvious problem. But there are many other problems.
There are poorly trained people. We’ve seen even if you have drugs available that there have been botches because executioners don’t know what they’re doing, or the inmates haven’t been checked out medically as well, and they have problem veins or something like this.
Or, you know, the executioners can’t even see the inmate. That’s been a problem over the years that’s been corrected, because the inmates commonly are in a room all by themselves.
HOBSON: And of course there is a wide range of opinion on this, some people saying who cares if the prisoner had to suffer in his last moments, think about the victims. And others saying we shouldn’t be using the death penalty at all in this country, forget about which drugs you’re using, it’s just a bad practice.
DENNO: Well, there are – there is a split, but there’s also sort of a middle ground, which I think I take. I have no sympathy with these inmates who commit horrible crimes. I mean, who would be sympathetic with somebody like that? What makes me angry is the incompetence. No one in this country wants incompetent people doing important government work. And that’s exactly what happened.
This lethal injection execution should never have turned out the way it did. And the executioners were ill-trained, and it was a bad job, and no one wants bad work to be rewarded.
HOBSON: Deborah Denno, professor of law at Fordham University, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DENNO: Thank you.
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