The killing fields


Every few years Americans have a public discussion about the death penalty for convicted murderers. That discussion is often prompted by the spectacle of a botched execution at a state maximum security prison. Last week members of the public in Oklahoma watched as a man was subjected to the worst that medical science has to offer.

I consider the death penalty a barbaric means of punishment and something a civilized society should not engage in. I can think of no worse punishment than having to spend decades locked in a box within another locked box among the most horrible humans on the planet. But that is a separate issue.

Consider the fact that our society possesses an extremely high level of expertise in understanding how the human body works and does not work. We have brilliant medical minds all over the planet and they are able to do amazing things. One thing that almost all of those minds do not wish to do is to willfully kill another human being.

That begs the question of who, among medical personnel, would accept the role of executioner using their skills to kill someone. They may be able to rationalize their actions by saying that they will do their best to humanely carry out the law. Is there such a thing as a humane execution, even if things go "smoothly"?

One of the problems with state-run executions is that they have almost always been public spectacles. That makes the whole thing that much more barbaric. Stonings, hangings and beheadings were carried out in public squares and modern day executions with gas, electricity and drugs are no less of a public event. What may have seemed cruel punishment hundreds of years ago was ironically much more effective than many of today's measures.

Why can't we carry out swift and flawless executions in the 21st century? There are a number of reasons. I have to believe that one of those reasons is that the best and brightest of the health care professions are not working in prisons.

An expert doctor or nurse might force a prison system to insert a central line type of IV catheter before an execution to cut down on the possibility of error. It would require a bit more skill, but it would assure that drugs stay in the circulatory system.

Then there are the drugs that are used to sanitize the spectacle to assure that it looks like the condemned person peacefully goes to sleep forever. From what I have been able to learn, the companies that make the drugs of choice do not want their products used to kill people. They object on moral grounds and some have successfully been able to stop the sale of their drugs to American executioners while others have been able to covertly sell their drugs to prisons.

States have come up with a combination of different drugs to try to kill people and any medical practitioner with half a brain would be appalled at the current choice of drugs used by many states to secure a humane death.

It's too bad we can't change the laws so that veterinarians could execute prisoners. They are experts at euthanasia because they have been provided with the proper drugs to get the job done. Of course it is likely that few, if any, vets would willingly kill a human in the same way they euthanize an animal.

So what's the best way to kill someone? My choice would be a gun or hanging because they work so well. The problem is one of perception. When you make killing a public event in the 21st century it has to appear to not be barbaric.

Other options could be an insulin overdose in combination with a high dose of potassium and an anti-seizure drug. With a secure IV line it would appear painless and simple to the audience.

Or why not make the condemned take responsibility for their own death and have them use the euthanasia cocktail that has become the standard in Oregon and Vermont? They would drink some juice loaded with pentobarbital and drift off to sleep. In most cases it would be a simple and humane death. However, it would not afford the public the drama of a public execution and, after all, it is the drama and humiliation of a public spectacle linked to revenge that is the real reason for the death penalty.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at


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