Austin American-Statesman (Texas)
May 28, 2006 Sunday
Death penalty's drug cocktail rooted in Texas
Mike Ward AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
NEWS; Pg. A01
When states began reviving the death penalty 30 years ago, hanging, electrocution, the gas chamber and firing
squads had passed out of favor, perceived as too brutal for a civilized nation.
Lethal injection was embraced as the humane method of administering the ultimate punishment. Deciding
exactly which mix of chemicals would most quickly and painlessly put someone to death would seem a
question easily answered by science.
But that's not how it was done.
Instead, the procedure of death by needle was the creation of an Oklahoma medical examiner and was put into
practice by Texas prison officials.
Now, that chain of events, reminiscent of the stereotypical good ol' boy prison environment in the classic 1967
movie "Cool Hand Luke," could draw Texas into the cross hairs of a growing national legal battle over whether
lethal injections are as painless as once thought. And whether they are unconstitutional.
Both the U.S. Supreme Court and a federal court in California are reviewing death penalty challenges that rest
on the argument that lethal injection, as it is being practiced, is constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual
"All roads lead to Texas on this one because the other states adopted the procedure on how to administer lethal
injection based on what Texas came up with," said Sarah Tofte, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, a New
York-based group opposed to the death penalty that last month released a report highlighting the growing legal
questions over lethal injection. "It's hard to believe that this procedure was developed without any real input
from medical professionals, but it was."
Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who is a recognized expert on lethal injection, agreed.
"If we're going to execute people, we should do it as humanely as possible, but we don't know that the current
procedure does that," she said, citing pending court cases in California and Florida. "As incredible as it may
seem, the current procedure was developed by some officials just winging it, without any real medical basis for
their decisions. So we really don't know how humane the process is."
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case from Florida about whether an inmate who has exhausted all
other appeals can return to court to challenge the cruelty of a specific method of lethal injection.