Death-row in­mates would rather die by fir­ing squad

Cur­rent method of lethal in­jec­tion less hu­mane, men ar­gue.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By Deanna Paul

In the min­utes be­fore his ex­e­cu­tion, Billy Ray Irick knew two things: He was suf­fo­cat­ing and he was in­vol­un­tar­ily par­a­lyzed, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, a fate that four Ten­nessee death row of­fend­ers seek to avoid.

In a le­gal chal­lenge filed last week, the Ten­nessean re­ported that the four con­demned in­mates — David Earl Miller, Nicholas Todd Sut­ton, Stephen Michael West and Larry McKay — pro­posed al­ter­na­tive ex­e­cu­tion meth­ods to the state’s three-drug cock­tail. The men al­leged a fir­ing squad would be more hu­mane than the lethal in­jec­tion Irick suf­fered through.

Irick, ex­e­cuted on Aug. 9 for a 1985 rape and mur­der, was the first to re­ceive the state’s new three-drug cock­tail. Miller, whose ex­e­cu­tion is sched­uled for De­cem­ber, would be next to die.

Ex­e­cu­tion view­ers watched the first chem­i­cal ad­min­is­tered; it was mi­da­zo­lam, a seda­tive.

Irick’s stom­ach moved up and down and his breath­ing be­came la­bored, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

“At a cer­tain point, he mostly just closed his eyes, snor­ing loudly. He ap­peared al­most sleep­ing,” said re­porter Steven Hale, a wit­ness to the ex­e­cu­tion. “Then, they do a con­scious­ness check.”

Seven min­utes af­ter the mi­da­zo­lam in­jec­tion, war­den Tony Mays yelled Irick’s first name twice and pinched the mus­cle above Irick’s col­lar bone. When he didn’t re­spond, court doc­u­ments said, Mays sig­naled to ad­min­is­ter the sec­ond drug: ve­curo­nium bro­mide, a par­a­lytic.

Irick’s arms were strapped and hands taped down as he lay on the gur­ney. Par­a­lyzed by the drug, in­clud­ing his di­aphragm, the mus­cle that con­trols the lungs, court doc­u­ments said it was im­pos­si­ble for him to move. Three to four min­utes later, he was in­jected with the killing agent, potas­sium chlo­ride.

“He made a sound, like a choked gasp, and strained against the re­straints. Then a move­ment with his head, then noth­ing,” said Hale. “He seemed to be re­act­ing to some­thing. It was ob­vi­ous there was a change that hap­pened af­ter the sec­ond drug and af­ter the con­scious­ness check.”

Many ex­perts have tes­ti­fied that the sec­ond and third chem­i­cals are painful. With­out anes­thetic, ve­curo­nium bro­mide has been de­scribed as the feel­ing of be­ing buried alive. The Supreme Court likened potas­sium chlo­ride to “chem­i­cally burn­ing at the stake.”

In re­cent years, there have been ex­e­cu­tions where wit­ness ac­counts raised ques­tions about whether in­mates were suf­fi­ciently anes­thetized when the killing drugs were ad­min­is­tered. These per­for­mances have raised ques­tions about mi­da­zo­lam’s ef­fec­tive­ness as a seda­tive in ex­e­cu­tions, The Washington Post pre­vi­ously re­ported.

Irick’s death fol­lowed years of le­gal bat­tles, con­clud­ing with a scathing, near prophetic, dis­sent from Supreme Court Jus­tice So­nia So­tomayor in his failed 11th-hour ap­pli­ca­tion for a stay of ex­e­cu­tion.

“Al­though the Mi­da­zo­lam may tem­po­rar­ily ren­der Irick un­con­scious, the on­set of pain and suf­fo­ca­tion will rouse him. And it may do so just as the paral­y­sis sets in, too late for him to alert by­standers that his ex­e­cu­tion has gone hor­ri­bly (if pre­dictably) wrong,” wrote So­tomayor.

Go­ing for­ward with the ex­e­cu­tion, she said, and in­flict­ing “tor­tur­ous” pain, would mean “we have stopped be­ing a civ­i­lized na­tion and ac­cepted bar­barism.”

Many ar­gu­ments set forth in the newly filed mo­tion are ten­u­ous, ruled on in Irick’s and oth­ers’ cases. How­ever a few le­gal chal­lenges con­tinue to be lit­i­gated, in­clud­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of Ten­nessee’s lethal in­jec­tion pro­to­col.

The mo­tion also out­lines al­ter­na­tive, con­sti­tu­tional meth­ods, which the in­mates claimed are more hu­mane.

For ex­am­ple, other drugs, such as pen­to­bar­bi­tal, have been made avail­able in other states this year, or a two-drug method that does not in­clude a par­a­lytic.

A third sug­ges­tion was a fir­ing squad, which the con­demned said could be eas­ily done be­cause the Big Buck Shoot­ing Range is on the grounds of River­bend Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity In­sti­tu­tion, where the men are housed.

Fir­ing squads are still used or are on the books in Mis­sis­sippi, Ok­la­homa and Utah. Utah of­fi­cials made it the backup ex­e­cu­tion op­tion for the state in 2015.

Al­though they are not part of the Ten­nessee statute, which lists the elec­tric chair as its of­fi­cial backup method, last week’s mo­tion men­tioned that fir­ing squads could be re­in­stated promptly.

Ex­e­cu­tion by fir­ing squad has been called a “dig­ni­fied ex­e­cu­tion” by le­gal ex­perts, though So­tomayor’s de­scrip­tion of it as bar­baric may seem more apro­pos. Still, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments, it has been an avail­able ex­e­cu­tion method in the United States for more than 400 years.

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