The Lethal Injection

This week the USA has carried out its first executions since a botched lethal injection in April. But how does the lethal injection work?
20 June 2014


A needle


Capital punishment hasn't been used in the UK since 1964, however many Hypodermic needle countries, including the USA and China, still execute prisoners ever year. This week the USA has carried out its first lethal injections since the botched execution of convict Clayton Lockett in April, who died from a heart attack nearly an hour after receiving his injection. The controversial technique has been used as a form of capital punishment in the states since the 70s, with over 1000 inmates being executed this way alone. Here is your Quick Fire Science on the lethal injection.

- Using lethal drugs was first suggested as a form of capital punishment in New York in the late 19th Century. At the time the idea was rejected as it might have lead people to associate hypodermic needles with death.

- In 1977, a medical examiner named Jay Chapman once more proposed that inmates would be executed with a specific and lethal combination of drugs.

- Texas became the first state to execute someone this way in 1982. Since then lethal injections have become the most common way to execute prisoners in America.

- Inmates are strapped to a gurney, then an intravenous cannula is inserted into each arm, through which a sequence of drugs are administered.

- Most states use three drugs, first sodium thiopental, a general anaesthetic which causes unconsciousness, then pancuronium bromide which paralyses muscles and stops breathing, and finally potassium chloride which stops the heart. The whole process should usually take around seven minutes.

- Getting the dosage of the various drugs correct is important. There are worries that if not enough sodium thiopental is administered then the painful effects of the procedure will be felt, but hidden by the induced paralysis.

- Sodium thiopental is now running very low in the US, as production companies in Europe have refused to supply it to America as it would be used in lethal injections

-Because of this shortage, some states have being using alternative drugs, which haven't always been rigorously tested, while Tennessee have reintroduced the electric chair.

- In April, Clayton Lockett was administered a previously unused combination of drugs in Oklahoma state. He was pronounced unconscious after ten minutes, but continued to move and moan. The execution was then halted but he died 43 minutes after the initial injection from a heart attack.

- While the majority of Americans are reportedly in favour of the death penalty, the number of executions scheduled for this year is 33, which is the lowest it has been in 20 years.


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