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UM researchers say lethal injection could violate Eighth Amendment

A death row inmate is given a fatal dose of chemicals, but the excruciating pain, suffocation and burning sensation associated with the toxins will be masked by an anesthetic.

Or, maybe it won’t. A study published in May 2007 by Teresa Zimmers and Leonidas Koniaris, two researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, suggests the use of lethal injection to execute death row prisoners may be violating the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel an unusual punishment.

“[Before conducting the study] my colleagues and I, like most Americans, thought the lethal injection was like a medical procedure and therefore painless,” Zimmers said. “We were very surprised to discover that there is substantial proof of pain.”

Lethal injection, the most common form of execution in the United States, is currently considered to be the most humane form of capital punishment.

Zimmers and Leonidas’ research shows that in 43 out of 49 lethal injection executions, not enough painkiller was administered, and inmates were fully aware of their suffering.

The researchers also discuss multiple problems with the lethal injection procedure, including a lack of training for the people who administer the serum and poor regulation of the process.

“There is a fairly entrenched opinion among prison officials that the current protocol is fail-safe, and if administered correctly, will result in a painless death,” Zimmers said.

The use of lethal injection is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court. The review began on Jan. 7, four years after two death row inmates from Kentucky sued the state claiming that death by lethal injection violates the Constitution.

Though the court is focusing on defining the acceptable amount of pain allowed under the Eighth Amendment, some Supreme Court justices are not too worried about inmate suffering.

“This is an execution, not a surgery,” said Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, refuting arguments that lethal injection causes “an unnecessary risk of pain.”

The two inmates are asking to be euthanized, which is the same procedure used to put down pets. This method would render the inmate unconscious and induce death within a few minutes.

Many states are refusing to change their protocol, including California, Florida and Texas.

“If you change, you are admitting that there was something wrong with the prior method,” said Professor Deborah Denno, an authority on methods of execution as Fordham University to the New York Times. “All those people you were executing, you could have been doing it in a better, more humane way.”

Nevertheless, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty.

Out of the remaining 37 states that allow the death penalty, including Florida, only Nevada demands that inmates be executed by electrocution.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on lethal injection is not expected until June 2008.

“Lethal injection as a form of execution is flawed and cannot be fixed,” Zimmers said. “There are so many flaws at so many levels. It would be better if it was discontinued.”

Lilliam Albizu-Campos can be contacted at l.albizucampos@umiami.edu.

-Approximately 3,350 people are on death row in the U.S. Of these, two inmates have received the death penalty for a non-homicide crimes, although no one in the U.S. has been executed for a crime other than murder since 1964.

-The last time the Supreme Court considered the humanity of the death penalty was in the case of Willie Francis, a Louisiana inmate sentenced to death in 1945. He was strapped into the electric chair and shocked, but somehow survived. He pleaded for his sentence to be commuted in the Francis v. Resweber case, but the court ruled that it was a technical malfunction and the state could attempt again. Francis was successfully executed in 1947 at the age of 17.

January 31, 2008

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The Miami Hurricane

Student newspaper at the University of Miami


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The Miami Hurricane is the student newspaper of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The newspaper is edited and produced by undergraduate students at UM and is published weekly in print on Tuesdays during the regular academic year.