Lethal injection fails to quickly kill prisoner

By ThinkReliability Staff

While the use of the death penalty remains highly controversial, there is general agreement that if it is used, it should be humane.  The execution of a prisoner in Oklahoma on April 29, 2014 did not meet those standards.  The inmate died 43 minutes after the drugs were injected.  (Typically death takes 5-6 minutes after injection.)  According to Jay Carney, the White House Spokesperson, “We have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely – and I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard.”

The details surrounding this case can be captured in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, to examine the causes and effects of the issue.

The problem being evaluated is the botched execution of an inmate in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. The execution began at 6:23 pm on April 29, 2014.  An important difference in this execution, compared to other executions, is that it was the first time the state had used the drug midazolam as part of the three-drug injection protocol.  The protocol, when originally developed in 1977, called for sodium thiopental, followed by pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

The safety goal was impacted in this case because of the failed execution.  The public service goal can be considered to be impacted as the execution was called off (after all three drugs were administered; the prisoner later died of a heart attack.)  The schedule goal is impacted because all future executions have been called off.  The state planned a two-week postponement of the next execution (scheduled for later the same day) in order for a review of this investigation to be completed, but at the time of this writing, that execution has not yet been scheduled.  Executions across the country have been appealed or stayed and none have taken place since April 29th.  The labor/ time goal is also impacted due to the investigation into the execution, which has not yet been published.

These goals were impacted due to the failure of the lethal injection.  The process intended to be used for this lethal injection is detailed on the downloadable PDF.  However, from the start things didn’t go smoothly.  Instead of using two IVs, one in each arm, only one IV was able to be connected, in the patient’s groin.  Because sodium thiopental is no longer available (drug companies will no longer provide it for use in lethal injections), the drug midazolam was used instead.  However, the protocol for using that drug is disputed.  In Florida, five times the amount of midazolam is used.  In Oklahoma, midazolam is used along with hydromorphone.  Because of the debate about lethal injection, most states don’t divulge their suppliers, so the efficacy of the drugs used cannot be verified.  In addition, there is generally at least one doctor present to oversee the executions, but these doctors are not usually identified and may not participate in the actual administration of the drugs because many medical organizations ban doctors from participating on ethical grounds.

At this point, it’s unclear what will happen at future executions.  The investigative report being prepared by the state of Oklahoma may give some suggestions as to how to make lethal injections more humane in the future, or this may tilt the scales towards ending lethal injection, or executions altogether.

To view the Outline, Cause Map, and Process Map, please click “Download PDF” above.