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Alabama Struggles To Make Lethal Injections Work Amid Criticism

On three occasions in four months, Alabama’s department of corrections has bungled its lethal injections procedure. In each case, IV teams struggled for hours to find a vein through which to pour the lethal cocktail required by state execution protocols, reports The Guardian. Two of those times, after hours of prodding and jabbing, piercing and stabbing, they were forced to admit defeat. Prisoners Kenneth Smith and Allan Miller lived to tell the tale. A series of disturbing death chamber encounters, in Alabama and other states has put the spotlight back on lethal injections as the main method of U.S. capital punishment. The stories has been so alarming that some observers have begun to wonder whether the narrative that has stood for more than half a century that lethal injections are a medically informed, dignified way for states to kill people is unraveling. The procedure was first proposed by a medical examiner in Oklahoma in 1977 as a more civilized, painless alternative to the electric chair and firing squad. From the start, it has been dogged by problems ranging from controversies surrounding the drugs used in the cocktail to prolonged and potentially agonizing deaths. Not only have death penalty states struggled to acquire execution drugs under a global boycott by drug companies, they have also found it hard to contract skilled medical practitioners to administer the IV lines.


Both the American Medical Association and the American Board of Anesthesiology prohibit their members from participating in executions. Many states have wrapped themselves in a veil of secrecy to avoid public scrutiny. In Alabama, the members of the execution team are kept strictly anonymous. The establishing of IV lines is a process that occurs behind a closed curtain in the absence of media and other public witnesses. The curtain over the window of the viewing room is to be opened only after the IV team has completed its task. Joel Zivot, an expert on lethal injections at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital, linked Alabama’s repeated blunders to secrecy, saying, “When things go wrong in industries that require safety – nuclear power, say, or the airlines – detailed reviews are conducted in full public view." Another important factor, Zivot believes, is the composition and skill level of the IV team, noting that even Alabama’s heavily redacted execution protocols are confused about the role of trained medical professionals. The first page says that administering lethal injections “shall not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing, or pharmacy”. Yet the next page says that the condemned person “will see a physician [REDACTED] for an assessment of his vein structure”. With rising public concern, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey last month ordered a temporary halt to executions to allow for an official review. She said, “I don’t buy for a second the narrative being pushed by activists that these issues are the fault of the folks at corrections or anyone in law enforcement. Legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system are at play here.” Zivot said, "...How we treat and punish prisoners is the measure of our civil society, it’s the test. Shame on us, and shame on them, for causing this to happen."

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