Fatal Jabs

Deborah Denno in The International Herald Tribune, July 05, 2013

Media Source

By LIEN HOANG
 
HO CHI MINH CITY — As a form of capital punishment, lethal injection has led to bungled executions in which the condemned have grimaced or groaned in apparent pain, had violent reactions to the drugs, or waited hours as executioners failed to find a vein. It is the most common way to administer capital punishment in the United States, China and, eventually, Vietnam.
 
Vietnam made a commitment to swap firing squads for syringes in 2011. The move appeared to be part of a global trend to make the death penalty more humane. Officials had planned to execute its first prisoner by lethal injection last week, but another last-minute delay cast uncertainty on when that will actually happen.
 
The multiple delays speak to the larger problems with Vietnam’s decision to replace firing squads with lethal injections. Not only have preparations been insufficient, but death-by-drugging is not the “humane” method that officials in Vietnam — or elsewhere — hope for.
 
Vietnam has repeatedly pared down its list of capital crimes: Death row is now populated mostly with murderers and drug traffickers. Still, in 2012 Vietnam sentenced at least 86 people to death, according to Amnesty International, putting the country among the top 10 countries to hand down capital sentences.
 
Following convention, Vietnamese executioners will use a three-drug protocol that induces unconsciousness, paralysis and then cardiac arrest. But the method is fraught with problems.
 
If the prisoner doesn’t receive enough sedative, he could be conscious when injected with the third, fatal drug. What’s more, the paralytic could prevent him from communicating any of this pain to executioners. In other words, the risk that a prisoner would suffer during lethal injection is greater than in the case of a firing squad, which involves instant death and far less room for error.
 
Vietnam hasn’t executed anyone since its leaders voted in favor of lethal injection because the European Union refuses to export the drugs that would be used for executions. Many officials responded by calling for a return to firing squads.
 
The E.U. decision triggered a two-year moratorium on executions, which Janice Beanland, Amnesty International’s campaigner for Vietnam, had hoped would lead “away from the use of the death penalty altogether.”
 
Rather than abolition, Vietnam opted to produce its own drugs for executions. And to inject the drugs, the Public Security Ministry has trained police officers across the country.
 
Doctors would be the best qualified professionals to administer the poisons, but they are generally barred from doing so because of the Hippocratic Oath. That leaves less experienced people who are more likely to make a mistake, such as failing to locate a vein or deliver the heart-stopping drug too soon.
 
A law professor at Fordham University, Deborah Denno, who has studied capital punishment for decades, says that’s another reason lethal injection is less humane. At least firing squads enlist people who know what they’re doing, usually military or police officers who have been professionally trained to kill.
 
And it’s not just the condemned who suffer. In Vietnam, advocates for getting rid of death-by-shooting say that that method takes a psychological toll on officers who pull the trigger. But Denno says that firing squads are actually arranged to minimize individual remorse — meaning, several people pull the trigger, and one gun shoots blanks, so the shooters don’t know who among them fired the fatal shot. That distance separates executioner from executed.
 
Lethal injections are the opposite. Executioner and executed are up close and personal. The officer must make intimate contact with the inmate, finding a vein for the chemicals and monitoring the inmate’s vital signs throughout the process. The officer is directly responsible for the prisoner’s death.
 
Why then is lethal injection so appealing? Because it looks less barbaric than shooting, electrocution or hanging.
 
Critics of lethal injection say that it makes killing more palatable to the masses because it removes the appearance of violence and suffering. This face-lift distracts from other troubling issues surrounding capital punishment, such as its failure to deter crime and its institutionalization of revenge. Lethal injection seems civilized, and that is deceptive.
 
“If we’re going to have the death penalty,” Denno says, “don’t pretend that we’re having a medical procedure.”