On Tuesday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced it would use a single drug -- pentobarbital, a barbiturate -- to carry out executions due to a shortage of one component in a three-drug cocktail.
Overseas manufacturers of pancuronium bromide, a powerful paralytic, have halted shipments to the U.S., protesting its use in lethal injections. That leaves one company to supply the American state-sanctioned execution market. TDCJ officials still have enough pentobarbital, however, to put its prisoners to death on schedule. So from now on, when a man or woman is executed in a Texas prison, it will be with a single, lethal dose of a barbiturate, much the same method used to end the suffering of a beloved pet.
That's not a criticism. Apart from abolishing the death penalty altogether, this is the most humane change to its method of death-dealing the state has ever undertaken.
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In 2009, I witnessed the execution of a Tennessee farmer and drug addict named Steve Henley. He was convicted of shooting his neighbors, an elderly couple his family had known for decades. Before he fled, according to testimony, he poured gasoline around the bodies and burned them up. An autopsy revealed the woman died of smoke inhalation, not gunshot wounds. As far as anyone knew, he was the only one with a motive. Henley sued the couple after a head-on collision on the narrow country road that stretched past their houses. He had always maintained his innocence, right up to the moment he lost consciousness. He was convicted of an awful thing. But if you think lethal injection is too peaceful an end for those who take lives, I recommend witnessing one.
First, a barbiturate, sodium thiopental, was administered to induce unconsciousness. Then pancuronium bromide paralyzed every muscle in his body, including the diaphragm, which draws air into his lungs. As he suffocated, Henley's face turned a violent shade of purple, and his neck, despite the paralytic, perceptibly shifted and strained for a few moments, before the drug stilled him. Finally, a lethal dose of potassium chloride stopped his heart. After 14 minutes, Henley was pronounced dead.
His daughter, son and sister saw the whole thing. They wanted their loving faces to be the last he saw. It was their suffering that sticks with me. I know that they will never recover from it. But months later, it wasn't just his death or their anguish that kept me up at night. It was how he died. An autopsy revealed there wasn't enough sodium thiopental in his system to keep him under. He was awake as he suffocated, but he couldn't register his agony because every muscle in his body was paralyzed. Whatever we may think he deserved, that kind of death diminishes us all.
I sincerely doubt a sudden humane streak had anything whatsoever to do with the TDCJ's decision, but I welcome it nonetheless.