Editor’s note: This post is part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015. The conference brought together leading experts to review major developments in health law over the previous year, and preview what is to come. A full agenda and links to video recordings of the panels are here.
The relationship between medicine and capital punishment has been a persistent feature of this past year in health law, both at the level of medical ethics and Supreme Court review.
Our story starts in Oklahoma, where the execution of Clayton Lockett was botched on April 28, 2014. NIH bioethicist Seema Shah described the events in question:
Oklahoma was administering a new execution protocol that used the drug midazolam, a sedative that is often used in combination with other anesthetic agents. Oklahoma had never used this drug in executions before; in fact, only a few states had experience with using the drug in lethal injection. Florida had previously used this drug in lethal injections, but with a dose five times higher than what was indicated in Oklahoma’s protocol. If the execution had gone as planned, Clayton Lockett would have first received midazolam; been declared unconscious, then received vecuronium bromide (a paralytic/neuromuscular blocking agent that would restrict his movements), and finally received potassium chloride (the drug likely to end his life). A few minutes after officially being declared unconscious, Lockett mumbled statements including the word, “Man.” He “began breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow.” Prison officials prevented the witnesses from seeing the rest of the proceedings by closing the curtains. The Department of Corrections then called off the execution and unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate Lockett, and Lockett eventually died of a heart attack more than 45 minutes after the execution began. Although a Department of Corrections official stated that Lockett’s veins “exploded,” an autopsy examination performed by a forensic pathologist hired by death row inmates appears to contradict official reports. This report concluded that even though prison officials decided to inject the drugs into Lockett’s femoral vein (which is a more difficult and risky procedure), Lockett’s surface and deep veins had “excellent integrity.” Another execution that was scheduled to occur that same night has now been stayed for six months, pending an investigation into Mr. Lockett’s execution.
On July 23, 2014, Arizona encountered a problem with the same drug in the execution of Joseph Wood, wherein the condemned inmate allegedly gasped for almost two hours before dying.
The executions have prompted two important but different kinds of responses. In this post I write about the role of medical ethics and the U.S. Supreme Court’s response.
Read the rest of this entry »