Why Execution Drugs Don't Always Work Right

Thursday, 01 May 2014 05:07 PM

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The botched execution of Oklahoma death-row inmate Clayton Lockett is raising new questions about how lethal injection drugs work — or don't — and prompted some to call such forms of capital punishment cruel and usual, LiveScience reports. 
 
Lockett lived for 43 minutes after receiving a lethal injection, convulsing and writhing on the gurney before finally dying of a heart attack, according to news reports.

Now, some defendants are demanding the right to know exactly what drugs are in the series of life-ending injections given in executions.

Lethal injections usually involve a deadly cocktail of two or three drugs. The first induces unconsciousness, then others are injected to stop the breathing and/or the heart.

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"The way a body dies is from lack of oxygen to the tissues, causing them to stop functioning," said John DiCapua, M.D., an anesthesiologist at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y.

But the drugs must be administered correctly in order to be effective. Giving anesthesia is not something that can be learned quickly; it takes years of training, he said.

In Lockett's case, executioners used the sedative midazolam, then a drug called vecuronium bromide, which paralyzes muscles, to stop the breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

But different doses of these drugs are required in order for them to be effective in different people. Some people have a tolerance to certain drugs, requiring a larger dose to be effective.

Doctors believe the intravenous line going into Lockett's vein exploded, but his appeals team claimed something was wrong with the drugs or the way they were administered, NBC News reported.

Executions like Lockett's have spurred challenges to the use of lethal injections on both legal and ethical grounds.

Lockett was convicted in 2000 of first-degree murder, rape, kidnapping, and robbery.
 
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