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Why We're Watching an Oklahoma Lawsuit

Although lethal injection is often promoted as a humane alternative to more grisly execution methods used in the past, the reality is that there is nothing humane about it. An NPR review of more than 200 autopsies performed on the bodies of people executed by lethal injection between 1990 and 2019 revealed that 84% showed evidence of suffering induced by severe pulmonary edema.

“You would be aware of sensations of drowning, asphyxia, and terror if you have severe pulmonary edema like most of these inmates did," said Dr. Mark Edgar, an expert witness in a federal lawsuit, Glossip v. Chandler, challenging Oklahoma's lethal injection protocols this week.

At the heart of the case is a direct challenge to the use of midazolam as the first of three drugs administered. Most states that employ lethal injection as an execution method chose midazolam as a replacement for the powerful barbiturate sodium thiopental, banned from import by a federal court in 2013. (Read here for an account of Nebraska's failed 2015 efforts to illegally acquire sodium thiopental anyway and its subsequent failure to recoup any of their $54,400 price tag.)

Unlike sodium thiopental, midazolam belongs to the benzodiazepine family of drugs. Numerous medical experts (including an anesthesiologist who testified just today) have gone on record to state that even at high doses, benzodiazepines not only lack the capability to render an inmate "insensate" to the excruciating pain induced by subsequent drugs, but are likely to cause severe pulmonary edema as well—meaning inmates' lungs rapidly fill up with fluid and they are effectively drowned on the table. The lawsuit claims that Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol "will subject the prisoner to a constitutionally unacceptable risk of a constitutionally unacceptable level of pain and suffering."

Why does this matter to Nebraskans seeking an end to our own capital punishment system? Precisely because diazepam, the first drug in Nebraska's lethal injection protocol, also belongs to the benzodiazepine family. Witnesses of Nebraska's botched execution of Carey Dean Moore in August 2018 described behavior consistent with severe pulmonary edema. The Oklahoma case could have far-reaching implications for other states that use lethal injection!


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