By Hank Skinner
December 14th, 2007
Dear friends, enemies and others I’ve yet to meet,
Hope this finds you all alive, well and prosperous. Some 10-11 years ago I authored an article entitled “Lethal Injection: what really happens” in an effort to educate the public and hoping to persuade some death penalty lawyers to tackle this issue of lethal injection, which I believe is an insidiously evil way to die, as recounted below.
Rather than obtaining the hoped for result I was instead subjected to some glaring ridicule from several sources. Most notably two rather well known D.P. lawyers wrote to tell me that I should take my article (Lethal Injection: what really happens) off the Internet because I was upsetting their clients with my “false propaganda” (the other attorney called it “inflammatory agitprop”) and told me something along the lines of, that lethal injection had been looked into and was A.OK; that as the state was gearing up to speed up the executions and they couldn’t stop it, the one thing their clients took solace in (and the attorneys did too) was that they’d die an easy, serene death. Ha/ha. So there I was, stealing their peace! Needless to say, I did not take kindly to this.
Below is recounted “Lethal Injection: what really happens”. The only mistake I made was saying that potassium chloride is acidic; I always get the PH scale backwards; being the experienced basement chemist I am, it’s my one struggle with dyslexia. Ha/ha. Potassium chloride is alkaline, with a PH of 11. It’s highly caustic. Angel Diaz, with the 12-inch long chemical burns on his arms, would attest my correctness, if it had not killed him. Afterwards are the corresponding excerpts, with credits, from the eight different amicus briefs filed in the case of Baze v Rees USSCT #07-5439, the current Supreme Court case on the constitutionality of the current lethal injection protocol.*
Lethal Injection: What really happens
April '97.....".....Texas newspapers recently reported a freakish accident. A lady, while hospitalized, was accidentally injected with one of the three poisons used to kill prisoners in the state's death chamber. The horrible way she died, convulsing in pain and screaming that she was burning, shocked the readers. Efforts have been made to convince the public that lethal injection is a painless and humane way to kill human beings. This news report forces us to rethink that view "Lethal Injection is not humane nor "painless" as death penalty advocates claim. Potassium is a metallic inert chemical. Potassium chloride is the salt of potassium after it's reacted with hydrochloric acid. It's an essential mineral in small doses, ingested like eating bananas. It's essential to muscle tone and action. That's why people who become dehydrated from working in the sun too long have severe muscle cramps, because their electrolyte balance is thrown off by potassium loss. It's the first to go when one sweats profusely.
"In large doses, injected intravenously, it would burn and hurt horribly, because it's a salt and because it instantly throws off the chemical balance of the blood with which it comes into contact. It makes all muscles lock up in extreme contraction that would hurt unbearably. It wouldn't get to all muscles when a prisoner is being killed with it, however. Since the heart is a muscle and it pumps the blood -- the minute that massive dose of potassium salt hits the heart, one would be history and that would be as far as it would travel.
"In lethal injection, three chemicals are used to kill. First, sodium pentothal (its trade name) or thiopental sodium (its chemical name). Then one minute later they inject pavulon. One minute later the potassium chloride. Pentothal is a short acting barbituric acid (barbiturate used in anesthesia) and is commonly called "truth serum" as it's used in narcoanalysis. It knocks one out. It's a hypnotic. Pavulon is a curare' derivative which locks up the lungs so one can't breathe.
"So, while the helpless man strapped to a gurney is knocked out by the thiopental and can't draw a breath because of the pavulon -- he certainly can't scream in pain when that burning potassium is injected and sends his heart into a crunching excruciating cramp.
"Ah, but the woman in the article didn't have any thiopental or pavulon beforehand. It hurt so bad she sat up in bed and screamed, seizured violently, then died. But she wasn't strapped down to a gurney, either. The inmates they're killing would scream too, IF they were able. They'd sit up and scream, IF they weren't strapped down and if their lungs weren't seized by pavulon. But they do gasp. Every one of them has. It's all they can do.
"'It looked as if he just went to sleep' -- that's how it's designed to look, to make it more palatable to the observers and those who're doing it. While it looks that way, it certainly isn't that way for the inmate they're killing. Looks are deceiving!
"All three of these drugs are acidic with pH higher than 6. God only knows what chemical reactions occur as they're mixed together in one's bloodstream. It probably burns so terribly that one feels as if he's being injected with fire right out of hell......"
From petitioners’ briefs, page 6: “Gerry Etheredge, a veterinarian, suggested that the most humane method of lethal injection would be an overdose of pentobarbital, the chemical most often used in animal euthanasia.” I’ve long said thiopental was too light a drug for executions and that Nembutal (which is pentobarbital), a longer duration of action anesthetic, would be more appropriate.
Same brief, page 10: “Thiopental was used to induce anesthesia in the 70’s (but never to maintain it). It is rarely used today (in surgical anesthesia)”.
Page 12: “It is undisputed that the administration of pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride… would result in a terrifying and excruciatingly painful death if injected into a conscious person”.
Page 12: … “the pain of potassium is similar in intensity to a ‘surgical stimulus’ and could be felt by someone who is only lightly anesthetized” (please note below that thiopental in nearly any dose produces only a low level of anesthesia).
Page 25 – Footnote 12: “Veterinarians use pentobarbital as the predominate means of animal euthanasia due to its reliability, simplicity and humaneness.” With pentobarbital you’d be dead in 5 to 12 minutes. You’d just go to sleep and never wake up. Dogs and cats in Texas die a better death than executed humans.
From the brief of amici curiae Fordham University School of Law, Louis Stein Center for Law & Ethics in support of petitioners, page 18 **: discussing Oklahoma’s chief medical examiner, Jay Chapman, designing the 3 drug lethal injection protocol: “the first drug Chapman included, an ultra-short acting barbiturate, is an anesthetic (thiopental) that can act quickly to cause a low level of unconsciousness. The second drug, (pancuronium bromide) a chemical paralytic,… paralyzes the body’s muscles”.
In other words, in order to produce a humane execution, a prisoner would need to be put into a deep unconsciousness call a “surgical plane of anesthesia” where he is totally unresponsive and of course unfeeling any external or noxious stimuli. Clearly, according to the Critical Care Providers & Clinical Ethicists, along with Fordham University Amici, thiopental will not achieve the deep anesthesia required for surgical planes of unconsciousness.
From the amicus brief of Drs Kevin Concannon, Dennis Geiser, Carolyn Kerr, Glenn Pettifer and Sheilah Robertson as amici curiae in support of petitioners page 4 ***: “Sodium pentobarbital is a long acting anesthetic that quickly places the patient in a deep, surgical plane of anesthesia when injected intravenously. An overdose of sodium pentobarbital causes the patient to move past a surgical plane of anesthesia into profound brain depression resulting in death. Significantly, all this occurs with only transient and minimal pain to the patient associated merely with the venipuncture itself.” English translation: one little (needle) prick and you go to sleep and never wake up, with the single drug protocol.
Page 5: Sodium thiopental on the other hand “is an ultra-short acting barbiturate injected in a 3 gram dose intended to anesthetize – but not kill – the prisoner”.
You see the real reason, I believe, that the states cling on to the 3 drug protocol is that it gives them wide latitude in deciding how hard you die. In 2004 Billy Frank “Sonny” Vickers had a date but survived it and was brought back to the Polunsky unit where he dictated “THREE AND A HALF STEPS” **** to me. One of the things Sonny told me, we left out of “THREE AND A HALF STEPS” because he was afraid, if we put it in there, they would subject him to it 30 days later when his execution was reset and carried out: one of the prison officials – I think it was the warden or strap down supervisor – noticing that Sonny was visibly upset and shaking, agitated, told him to calm down (Ha/Ha, like this was possible while waiting to die?!?) and said “we can do this the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is, you sit on down there and eat your (final) meal, talk to the chaplain, make your phone calls and cooperate with my officers when the time comes. I promise you I’ll use enough of that sedative to knock you out and you won’t feel a thing. On the other hand, if you want to get ‘agg’ and fight my officers, I’ll just forget that sedative and use water or, I’ll mix it up wrong and just use the pancuroniun to paralyze you while you’re still awake and then I’ll use that potassium to put the damnedest Charlie horse in your chest that you ever felt and believe me, you’ll go down hard. So it’s up to you. Better take the easy way if you’re smart.” I’ll admit this is paraphrased from my 3-year old memory after the fact; I’ve got the exact words Sonny told me written down somewhere but I can’t find ‘em right now. Think I sent ‘em out. But I guarantee it’s 100% accurate in the essential message it conveyed.
So, that’s why I say and believe the 3 drug cocktail is insidiously evil: they just want to use thiopental to put you in a low level of unconsciousness so they can then paralyze you in that serene looking positional pose, then hit you with that jolt of potassium so they can really make you feel it. The most horrible death imaginable: inside you’re aware, awake and screaming in burning agony, outside you look serene and peaceful like you’re asleep and taking a (dirt) nap.
To be fair to TDCJ and the state, I want to emphasize that there is a vast difference between “I believe” and “it is a fact”, Jack. However, there is at least some anecdotal, documented evidence for what I believe. As Elizabeth Weil stated in her recent New York Times Magazine article, dated February 11th, 2007, “The Needle and the Damage Done”, the expert anesthesiologist testified in the case she was covering that the eyes watering are one of the subtle indicators of conscious awareness during a lethal injection execution. Timothy McVeigh’s eyes teared when he was executed. After he just stopped speaking or moving, tears streamed down his cheek and he ultimately died with his eyes open. McVeigh, the infamous Oklahoma City bomber, killed 168 innocent people, quite a few of whom where women and children, all of whom were innocent. McVeigh later callously referred to those he killed as “unfortunate collateral damage”. 168 lives vs 1. You think maybe they wanted to make him feel it? I’d bet on it. And win.
Incidentally, to digress for just a moment, can you guess where McVeigh learned his terminology? In the army, of course! Be all you can be! When news agencies reported the wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent citizens during Desert Storm, Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf said on TV that all those deaths, “while regrettable, were merely unfortunate collateral damage occurring during an act of war and thus unavoidable”. I remember that so well after all these years because it shocked me to my core, the way they just dismissed all those innocent lives as if they were nothing more than trash to be swept off the cutting room floor.
Back to the lethal injection issue. Gary Graham died with his eyes open too. He was in mid speech of his final statement when his jaw seemed to slowly stop moving and he died frozen in that position, staring at Jesse Jackson, it was reported in the papers at the time and, he had tears streaming down his cheek too.
Days before his execution, Graham had done an interview with a radio station (I think it was KPFT; I might be wrong) where he spouted pseudo-revolutionary agitprop, vehemently playing the race card, saying something to the effect of “we need to start killing a white for every black executed” and urging people to show up at the execution armed: “if you need a shotgun, bring that! If you need an AK-47, bring that!” etc. Quannel-X and his followers showed up there, along with some members of the Klan on the other side of the square, if I remember correctly (if I’m incorrect on anything I say here, I invite you all to correct me, ok. I have no qualms about being corrected if I’m wrong; which happens, sometimes). Whatever the details, you think maybe they wanted to make him really feel it when he died?
In both Graham’s and McVeigh’s executions, I think it’s pretty obvious that their executioners just omitted the thiopental and started instead with the pancuronium bromide. Once paralyzed, they were both frozen in position but aware and awake when injected with potassium chloride. It hurt so bad it made tears come out of their eyes. “Flushing” is another example of conscious awareness. That’s when your face gets all strained up and changes colors to red, pink, purple, etc. I think that if trained anesthesiologists or others trained to recognize such symptoms were to comb through the archives of execution logs, news stories and personal memories of those present at past executions nationwide by lethal injection, you’d find an overwhelming wealth of evidence of conscious awareness***** during execution.
There’s another issue which really bothers me but was not raised in any of the briefs currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. In another case where the constitutionality of lethal injection was at issue, the state’s expert testified that saline flushes of the I.V. line were absolutely crucial because the chemicals were incompatible. That is, if you did not use ample saline to flush the I.V. line and the chemicals would clog it up. If you mix the chemicals and get a precipitate – i.e. a solid which falls to the bottom of the container like snow – this is because there is autolysis, automatic or oxidation catalysis occurring. This usually generates intense heat and is a “volatile” reaction. This phenomenon is further exemplified by the incident which occurred in Texas first lethal injection, where the warden mistakenly thought he could mix all three chemicals together and draw it up in one syringe. It turned colors, began smoking, emitted a “fog” and a very noxious smell; then turned into a solid white sludge. All evidence of catalytic molecular synthesis.
When molecular synthesis occurs like this, the atoms of two substances combine to form a new, third substance and whatever is not needed or leftover is sloughed off – the precipitate – or, the new formation is the precipitate and what’s sloughed off remains in the suspension/solution host. Either way, we’re talking about the formation of some new, third chemical which no one knows the effect of.
Flushing the I.V. line with saline (sodium chloride) would probably only move this volatile reaction site on into the crucible of the human body – i.e. the chemicals would not be mixing in the line but at the end it empties into – the veins of the prisoner being executed. So that’s the first thing on this issue.
The second thing is that thiopental is a very fragile and unstable chemical which must be mixed before use and must be used immediately because it begins to degrade as soon as it’s mixed. Additionally, it’s an ultra-short action of duration barbiturate which begins to metabolize on contact in the bloodstream. Pancuronium bromide, as its name suggests, is catalyzed by bromic acid reaction. Bromic acid is one of the most aggressive oxidizers known and is so unstable it is known only in solution. I think the chances are more than great that pancuronium bromide in the bloodstream would auto catalyze and thus neutralize thiopental sodium sulfate. In a lab, mixing a sulfate, a bromide and/or a chloride or two would probably result in some sort of explosive volatile reaction.
In many cases where thiopental levels in the blood were too low in executed prisoners bodies on autopsy and such low blood serum levels were consistent with consciousness at time of death, the state’s experts cite post-mortem tissue absorption. I think they are incorrect. I believe pancuronium bromide aggressively neutralizes and/or oxidizes the unstable thiopental with potassium chloride. Additionally, where burning, agonizing pain is concerned; I think there’d be little difference between the mixture of three (3) chemicals or being injected with Drano (sodium hypochlorite). The caustic drain opener.
From the amicus brief of Drs Kevin Concannon, Dennis Geiser, Carolyn Kerr, Glen Pettifer and Sheilah Robertson as amici curiae in support of petitioners at page 13***: The risk of consciousness is not merely theoretical. Evidence regarding executions performed the same as called for in Kentucky’s protocol, using the same 3 drug combination of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, suggests that a number of prisoners appeared to have remained conscious throughout the execution. See, e.g., Morales vs Tilton, 465 F.Supp.2d 472, 980 (N.D. CA. 2006) (noting that several California prisoners may have remained conscious despite the purported injection of five (5) grams of sodium thiopental (Texas uses only three (3) grams!), two (2) grams more than the dose called for in Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol.
From the Florida Corrections Commission Supplemental Report – Methods of Execution used by States (formely available at: www.fcc.state.fl.US/fcc
As Justice John Paul Stevens told the State’s attorney in a Florida case before the Supreme Court in 2006: “your procedure would be prohibited if applied to cats and dogs”, indeed!
From the AVMA Journal Euthanasia Guidelines 2006 Supplemental Statement******: “A combination of pentobarbital with a neuromuscular blocking agent is not an acceptable euthanasia agent”, clarifying that portion of the report, the AVMA says “it was intended as a recommendation against mixing a barbiturate and a neuromuscular blocking agent like pancuronium bromide in the same syringe; when that happens there is the probability that the paralytic agent may take effect before the barbiturate and the animal would thus become paralyzed while still conscious.”
For all these reasons and more, if Texas and other states would just switch to a single intermediate or long acting barbiturate like pentobarbital (a.k.a. Nembutal) and use a brain wave monitor, the execution could be made “humane” (as if any murder could be humane?) and without undue suffering. Since this chemical would kill just as quickly, in a 5 gram dose. What the public should be asking is: “what’s the problem? Why not switch?” they execute animals this way. I mean hell, can’t we, death row prisoners, get the same consideration they show a cur dog, cat, goat, etc.?
In my own case, I am innocent of the crime I am accused and convicted of. I have pretty substantial evidence to prove it too, including police and D.A. file records and DNA. However, the courts have turned a deaf ear and my case is now in the 5th circuit court of appeals where virtually no one wins. For years, while my case wound through the courts, I begged my lawyers to raise this issue on lethal injection, but they ignored me. When I learned that Kathryn Kase of TDS was successfully raising similar issues on behalf of another prisoner, I asked for her help too. She didn’t exactly ignore me but she refused to help me, which in my mind amounts to the same thing. The result is that I’ve so far been unable to raise the issue. I’ve written to other attorneys as well. Same result. I remain pretty convinced Texas will execute me for this crime anyway and really doesn’t give a damn that I didn’t do it. Regardless of the plentiful exculpatory evidence we present, the D.A., A.G and other state officials’ response is always just “a jury convicted him, he must die!!” Yeah. Right. But the damned jury never heard the exculpatory evidence of my innocence!! I feel like I’m living a bad rerun of an old Twilight Zone episode. Won’t someone raise these issues and try to do something about this, please?
Lastly, a bit of unsolicited advice to the defense bar: instead of a bunch of anesthesiologists and doctors, you probably should be consulting with some pharmaco-chemists or professors of organic chemistry because therein lies the answers to unlocking the molecular story of what happens when 3 incompatible chemicals are injected into the crucible of a human body and mixed with blood. I think some chemist who designs drugs for the pharmaceutical companies would be the right choice to consult. But then again, I’m just a basement chemist so what do I know?...
PS. Anyone who may want to write and discuss this with me, feel free to do so. I guarantee a response.
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