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Friday, December 20, 2013

Close enough for government work...

If you are familiar with my history from the blog posts here, then please excuse me for repeating myself. For those of you who do not know, the first place I was housed after being sentenced and being processed through Central Mississippi Correctional Facility was Unit 17 at Parchman, MS. To the best of my knowledge, this is where they still carry out executions of those condemned by the State to die. After Unit 17, I was later housed for years with the death row prisoners at Unit 32, when I was classified on High Risk status and was being moved at least once a week. I grew up around these guys, so death penalty issues are something I try to keep abreast of.

A recent Gallup poll showed that support for the death penalty is at its lowest point in 40 years - at 60%, down from a high of 80% in 1994. In 2011 the sole American manufacturer of the anaesthetic sodium thiopental announced it was ending production of the drug under pressure from the government in Italy, where its plant is based. (Love to Italy!) Despite struggling to maintain supplies, the 32 death-penalty states effectively ran out of the drug this fall. Other European manufacturers have refused to provide the drug because of a European Union statute prohibiting the export of any product that might be used in capital punishment, especially in light of evidence that lethal injections sometimes cause agonizing deaths.

Probably the most gruesome instance of lethal injection gone wrong occurred in Florida in 2006, when the state tried to execute Angel Diaz, who'd been sentenced to death two decades earlier. The 3-drug cocktail used to kill Diaz was supposed to take around three to five minutes to render him unconscious and motionless. Instead, Diaz writhed on the gurney, grimaced, shuddered, gasped for air, and even tried to mouth words... for 24 minutes. A second dose of the drug meant to render him unconscious was administered. Ten more agonizing minutes elapsed before he died. Post-mortem examination revealed 12" long chemical burns on Diaz's arm. The IV needle had punctured Diaz's veins, so the injected chemicals went straight into his flesh, burning it and causing great pain. He was apparently conscious as he suffocated to death.

When an execution is carried out correctly via injection, the condemned is given a cocktail of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. Sodium thiopental is administered to induce unconsciousness. Once this has taken effect, pancuronium bromide is then added to halt respiration, and potassium chloride is given to stop the heart. The condemned- in theory- shouldn't be able to feel the effects of the last two drugs, which actually kill the individual. However, in practice the executioners are often inept and apathetic to any suffering experienced by the condemned.

Promoted by state medical examiner Jay Chapman as a humane alternative to traditional forms of execution such as the electric chair, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection, in 1977. Injections were meant to transform executions into a less gruesome affair. To avoid any comparison with "putting down" animals with a single drug, Chapman suggested a three-drug cocktail, and it became a national standard. Affirmed in 2008 by the U.S. Supreme Court, the cocktail was determined not to violate the 8th Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment."

Unable to obtain the anesthetic sodium thiopental, states with the death penalty are improvising. Some are using a single dose of the anesthetic pentobarbital to excute prisoners, usually bought from loosely regulated compounding pharmacies. William Happ was executed in October by Florida, using a new three-drug combo that replaced sodium thiopental with the sedative midazolam. Midazolam causes memory loss and relaxation, but not necessarily unconsciousness. Happ took 14 minutes to die -twice what executioners planned- while his head shook throughout, and his eyes remained open until the 10th minute. The Texas DOCJ, which has carried out 37% of all U.S. executions since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976, has gone so far as to allegedly submit a falsified prescription to Pharmacy Innovations, for patient "James Jones"...actually the warden of the Huntsville Unit, which houses the execution chamber. Some states have gone so far as to buy lethal injection drugs with petty cash or individual employees' credit cards.

Expect more claims of lethal injection being cruel and unusual in violation of the 8th Amendment. In the meantime, what will the courts -and the public- allow the DOCs to do in the name of "justice"? If you are a voter, your voice counts. Contact your representatives, let your opinion be known, speak up. Silence amounts to consent in these matters.

About Steven

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Steven Farris is a prisoner who has been incarcerated since a month after his 16th birthday in 1998. Currently serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole, he is seeking to educate the public about the true nature of prison and the widespread and negative effects of the prison industrial complex. Steven has worked with both the National Prison Project of the ACLU, as well as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in furthering this effort.

You can contact him directly at:
Steven Farris #R5580
P.O. Box 1889
Woodville, MS 39669-1889

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