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Is Lethal Injection a Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

The death penalty is a divisive issue and most people feel strongly about it. Capital punishment is reserved for the most serious crimes, such as the Boston Marathon bombings.

death penaltyCurrently, the death penalty is an acceptable punishment in 32 states. States, such as, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Virginia, and Missouri regularly execute convicted murders. There are many arguments for and against the death penalty. The most prevalent being:


  • The death penalty provides victim’s families with closure.
  • Justice is served (i.e. “an eye for an eye”).
  • The death penalty is a deterrent for future criminals.


  • The death penalty is barbaric and violates the Bill of Rights (the cruel and unusual punishment clause).
  • It is hypocritical to say that killing is wrong and to have the punishment for the crime be death.
  • The death penalty costs taxpayers more than a life sentence.

Although the verdict is still out on whether the death penalty should continue, many have agreed that the process should be quick and painless. Since 1976, the most common method used to carry out death penalty sentences is lethal injection. Recently, the Supreme Court heard a case about Oklahoma’s inmates and lethal injection.

In this case, the prisoners argued that the use of a certain drug combinations was unconstitutional because it caused pain and suffering that violated the cruel and unusual clause of the Bill of Rights. The specific drug in question is midazolam.

Traditionally, the following three drugs are used for lethal injections:

  • Sodium thiopental or pentobarbital- this would cause death by lack of breathing
  • Pancuronium bromide- this would cause death by asphyxiation
  • Potassium chloride- this would cause death by cardiac arrest

Before administering any of these drugs, the condemned inmate is given a sedative to induce unconsciousness. The traditional barbiturate drug that was used for the process is manufactured in Europe and the United States. The European and United States manufacturers have refused to sell the drug for executions. Due to the lack of supply, many states have resorted to using midazolam to induce unconsciousness.

The main arguments heard last week by the Supreme Court were concerning the effectiveness of the drug. The prisoners argued that previous death row inmates were not unconscious after they were given midazolam. The amount of time it took to execute these inmates ranged from 26 minutes to two hours—all were conscious and responsive during this period. Once again, the opponents of the death penalty are arguing that the process violates the cruel and unusual punishment clause.

Many are hoping that the Supreme Court’s decision will also address the need for standards and guidelines. Currently, there are no protocols in place for executions because the American Medical Association discourages doctors from partaking in human executions. To put this in perspective, the euthanasia of pets has stricter guidelines than the execution of inmates.

Here are a few key differences between the treatment of pets and death row inmates:


  • A doctor is always involved when a pet is euthanized
  • Paralytics are not used because the veterinarian wants to know if the animal is feeling pain
  • There is a national medical association that provides guidelines about the procedure
  • Doctors and staff in every state receive the same training
  • The veterinarian is in the room when the pet is being euthanized


  • Most often it is the prison staff that carries out the execution
  • Paralytics are used during executions
  • There is no national association that creates guideline procedures
  • Doctors or staff members receive varying degrees of training because each state has its own procedure
  • Executioners are not always present when the drugs are being administered, sometimes the procedure is carried out by a machine

How the Supreme Court will rule on this case is still anyone’s guess. As a precaution though, many states are now reviving other execution methods, such as the electric chair, firing squad, and nitrogen gas as alternatives to lethal injections.

Jessica Tran


  • Drew

    When you lay it out this way it certainly seems like lethal injection would be a violation of rights. Hopefully in the future it will be more understood so that a decision one way or the other can be made. Thanks for sharing.

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