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Capital Punishment: Not That Difficult February 4, 2011

Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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A shortage of the anesthetic thiopental sodium threw the capital punishment system into disarray. States go to great lengths to establish protocols for killing that are deemed both reliable and sufficiently painless so as not to constitute “cruel” punishment for those that have been sentenced to die for crimes.

A lethal injection sequence of three separate drugs, beginning with thiopental sodium, has become the standard in most states, which is why the absence of the first drug threatened to derail the process. But why has this become the standard means of execution? After all, you have to strap down the condemned and get a needle into a vein before you can even begin administering the toxins.

If the goal is a reliable and painless death, you can save the trauma and pain associated with placing an IV, not to mention issues with stocking reliably potent drugs, through simple oxygen deprivation. One might think this is what is practiced in states that use “gas chambers” for execution. But apparently the only gas chamber executions ever performed by U.S. governments have used poison gas (some variant of cyanide) which, if not painful, at least tends to cause a somewhat spectacular death typically accompanied by violent convulsions.

Nothing could be more painless or less traumatic than death by oxygen deprivation (hypoxia). Anyone who has gone for a ride in a hypobaric chamber without an oxygen mask (as many military pilots have to do) knows that severe oxygen deprivation results in painless and almost instant unconsciousness. Left in a sufficiently low-oxygen atmosphere a person will be dead within ten calm minutes. And if the ear-popping associated with a low-pressure chamber is too discomfiting a low-oxygen atmosphere can instead be produced by scrubbing oxygen from a room and replacing it with physiologically inert gases like nitrogen. Unlike other means of execution, the failure of a hypoxic chamber cannot cause suffering: If oxygen levels can’t be brought down low enough or fast enough the worst that happens is that the subject feels light-headed instead of unconscious. (In fact, hypoxia is notoriously lethal because its symptoms are so hard to recognize; pilots are put through hypoxia to try to train them to recognize the symptoms and put on oxygen masks before they are incapacitated.) And unlike poison gas chambers a hypoxic chamber poses no risks to bystanders or executioners.

So why isn’t hypoxia the preferred means of execution?

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