Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ohio's New Lethal Injection Policy

With the debate continuing regarding the cruelty and potential unconstitutionality of the current lethal injection procedure (a 3 drug “cocktail”), Ohio has become the first state to switch from the controversial “cocktail” to a single drug. Although state officials state that this change has little to nothing to do with the national debate, Ohio’s action may persuade other states to follow suit.

According to officials, this change in procedure is due to a failed effort in September to execute an inmate. The new procedure will call for the injection of anesthetic into the veins of the prisoner in an amount that should kill the person. If this does not work, or the veins of the inmate (as in the case of the failed execution in September) make the injection of anesthetic unsuitable, two drugs will then be injected directly into the prisoner’s muscles.

Terry J. Collins, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, has stated that “We figure we’re going to get sued whatever we do with the death penalty.” However, he claims that the new procedure, including the backup method, will be one that works. Additionally, by remaining with an intravenous method as the primary manner and switching to a single drug makes litigation and opposition from death penalty opponents less likely.

By retaining the intravenous method, Ohio officials are also implicitly saying that they don’t feel this method is cruel or unconstitutional. However, Ohio is one of few states that has a law which explicitly guarantees prisoners a quick and painless death; the use of the three drug “cocktail” did not always ensure such results as it had the potential to cause excruciating pain.

The United States Supreme Court has previously ruled that execution procedures similar to those previously used in Ohio were constitutional, as the method employed is not required to avoid all risk of pain. It is specifically Ohio law that “demands the avoidance of any unnecessary risk of pain and, as well, any unnecessary expectation by the condemned person that his execution may be agonizing or excruciatingly painful” which has helped lead to this change. As such, other states may not so readily follow Ohio’s lead in changing their death penalty procedures.

Still, change needs to start somewhere. With Ohio acting as a guinea pig for change, other states may eventually be encouraged to follow based on the success or failure Ohio has with these new procedures. Other states will be able to tinker with their procedures based on the results in Ohio in order to arrive at the most efficient and least cruel methods for execution. So, while changes nationwide may not occur overnight, hopefully Ohio’s first step towards reform will cause other states to rethink their procedures over time.

For the full article from the New York Times, click here.

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