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Lethal injection may cause agony - rights group

Written by: Staff

NEW YORK, Apr 24 (Reuters) Execution by lethal injection may cause excruciating pain, contradicting its reputation as a humane and thus publicly acceptable way to impose the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said.

Executioners fail to take the steps needed to ensure a painless death and use a drug that veterinarians have deemed too cruel for putting down dogs and cats, the group said in a report released today.

However, a leading death penalty proponent dismissed the report as ''blind speculation,'' saying there was no evidence of someone being conscious and in agony during lethal injection.

Human Rights Watch, which opposes the death penalty in all cases, issued the report amid increased scrutiny of lethal injections across America.

A North Carolina man was executed by lethal injection on Friday by officials who, following a judge's order, used a brain wave monitor to ensure he did not suffer undue pain.

In other states such as Florida and California, executions have been delayed while courts consider whether the lethal injections cause agony. An execution in California was halted in February after the prison failed to find anesthesiologists willing to certify the inmate's death was painless.

''There is mounting evidence that prisoners may have experienced excruciating pain during their executions. This should not be surprising given that corrections agencies have not taken the steps necessary to ensure a painless execution,'' Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch does not endorse any alternative method but said as long as the death penalty is legal in the United States it wanted to enforce international human rights laws requiring the least possible suffering.

THREE DRUGS OF DEATH In the standard method used by 38 states, the condemned are injected with three successive drugs: the anesthetic sodium thiopental which renders the inmate unconscious, followed by the paralyzing agent pancuronium bromide, and finally a drug that stops the heart, potassium chloride.

The problem, Human Rights Watch says, is that the paralytic may prevent inmates from expressing the excruciating pain that potassium chloride would cause if the anesthetic fails.

The American Veterinary Medical Association condemns the use of potassium chloride during euthanasia unless it used with another drug that has already made the animal unconscious.

''There is mounting evidence of botched executions,'' the report said, citing an executioner who improperly inserted a needle, others who repeatedly stuck inmates searching for a vein, and an inmate who convulsed, opened his eyes, and appeared to try to catch his breath during his execution.

Dudley Sharp, a Texas-based death penalty proponent from the group Justice Matters, called the Human Rights Watch arguments ''just plain stupid.'' ''They're using words like might or could. They're not dealing with facts. This is blind speculation by a group that wants to stop all executions, painful or not,'' Sharp said.

''There's no evidence the level of anesthesia has ever dropped below levels that would induce full unconsciousness. No one has ever produced evidence of someone being conscious and in agony,'' Sharp said.

Reuters OM DB0439

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