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The List of Shame by Barbara Victor

Posted by Barbara Victor at 11th April, 2011

            An article in the New York Times on Sunday revealed that there is a shortage of one of the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections for the death penalty. Sodium Thiopental, an anesthetic, manufactured by Hospira, recently announced that it would no longer produce the drug to be used for executions. In Europe, where the drug is also manufactured and used in operating rooms, companies have also refused to export the drug to those countries that use it on inmates to be put to death. 

Given the high technology when it comes to anesthetics, there are, of course, alternatives. Pentobarbital is one though it is used infrequently on human beings and rather to euthanize dogs and cats. True, there is little difference in the two drugs that ostensibly put the patient (human or animal) to sleep before the third part of the fatal cocktail is dripped into the vein. Both drugs come from the same family of barbiturates and efficiently depress the nervous system where the victim/patient/animal/human’s brain is put to sleep which results in the victim/patient to forget to breath, or the drug decreases blood pressure where sufficient blood is not pumped to the heart.

The problem is that sodium thiopental has been used in hospitals and in prisons because it has a fast onset, while pentobarbital is a long-acting drug. The reason pentobarbital is used mostly by veterinarians to euthanize animals is because it is not important if the animal wakes up faster or not. If the animal is still groggy, a higher dose is used so the lethal effect of the second injection simply stops the heart. Pentobarbitol is also used in certain rare cases on humans in hospitals—to induce coma in brain-damaged patients and, used in controlled and minor doses, to stop seizures.

It is not surprising that those of us who oppose the death penalty are against using any drugs for obvious reasons. Thiopental, however, can wear off too quickly and cause inmates about to be put to death to feel pain. The usual three-ingredient cocktail used to put inmates to death are a barbiturate with pancuronium bromide to put the victim to sleep and paralyze, and potassium chloride which causes cardiac arrest. The cocktail is certainly efficient and does the job, supposedly painlessly. In some cases, such as in Ohio, however, painless seems not to be high on the list of concerns, as officials there use an overdose of barbiturates alone simply to put people to sleep forever.

I am not arguing the pros and cons of the death penalty. For me, there is no argument. It is barbaric, outdated, and dangerous if one realizes that it is better to spare a guilty inmate than to execute one that could be proven innocent at a later date. What is shocking to me in this particular instance is the irresponsibility on the part of the United States, a supposed beacon of democracy and human rights to be part of a list of shame that still practices the death penalty in many of its states. Even as I write this, scientists and doctors are now researching to either find a substitute for the drug that allows the inmate/victim a peaceful death since the manufacturers of sodium thiopental are no longer willing to supply the drug, or those same researchers are trying to find another drug to do the job, even if it would be a more painful substitute.

We, in America, are in shameful company. For the sake of understanding who we align ourselves with when it comes to the death penalty, following are a list of countries that practice the death penalty. The list is divided into death for ordinary crimes and death for crimes of extraordinary circumstances. Whether benign or malevolent, the result is the same and usually with an audience that gets some satisfaction that justice is done.

Capital Punishment For Ordinary Crimes

Afghanistan, Antigua/Barbuda, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon. Chan, China, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Guinea, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakstan, North Korea, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority, Qatar Saint Christopher and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United States, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe

Capital Punishment For Extraordinary Circumstances

Bolivia, Brazil, Cook Islands, El Slvador, Fiji, Israel, Kygyzstan, Latvia, Peru

            There is nothing much to say about capital punishment that has not already been said—whether by those who are in favor of it or oppose it. We all know the arguments from those who support the death penalty about a life for a life, horrendous crimes where the perpetrator does not “deserve” to live, or the criminal does not merit the state paying millions to keep him or her alive etc. We also all know the arguments for those of us who are against it—saving the innocent, adhering to a civilized and humane penal system, and just generally not believing that we, any of us who are sane, have the right to take a life. Recently, I learned something interesting. While we in the United States have inmates on death row for years while stays of execution or constitutional minutia are debated, in China, things are different. And, how typical of the Chinese who have one of the worst human rights records in the world, to consider their way more humane.

The Chinese believe that since no one really knows the day they will leave this earth, the inmate is never told when he will be hauled off and executed. He is surprised when the guards come in and announce he is about to be put to death. In the minds of the prison officials, this puts the criminal on an equal footing with the rest of us. Death is a mystery that comes without warning.

Tragically, there is no solution to this polemic except if every country who practices the death penalty suddenly renounces its use.  In the larger scheme of injustices in this world, there are many who believe that the death penalty is not high on the list, especially if compared to the poor, starving, victims of war, or even our government which now has our men and women in harm’s way in three different countries. Personally, I feel helpless and even ashamed that I can’t do more to stop this particular barbaric injustice as well as countless others. But I, like the rest of us, merely have the right to vote and the choice of vacationing in those countries that join us on that list of shame. 

About Barbara Victor

Barbara Victor has written 7 articles on this blog.

Barbara Victor is co-president of the Board of the Woodhull Institute. She is a journalist who has covered the Middle East for most of her career. Barbara worked for CBS television for fifteen years, and U.S. News and World Report. She is a Pulitzer Prize nominee and is the author of five novels and seven non-fiction books.

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