Panel Calls for One-Drug Lethal Injections

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The lethal injection table at Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Photo: Image by © Mark Jenkinson/CORBIS

President Obama ordered the Justice Department to review death-penalty procedures just a few days ago, but thanks to a bipartisan panel of criminal justice experts we already have a thorough analysis of what's wrong with how executions are carried out in the United States. While the Constitution Project has been planning to release its latest study for some time, the findings are particularly relevant following last week's botched execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett. The report found that the commonly used three-drug cocktail, which was given to Lockett, creates "a high risk of improper administration of anesthesia.'' Instead, the group recommends a single large dose of an anesthetic or barbiturate. That's the method Oregon approved for doctor-assisted suicides, and the report notes it's also preferred by veterinarians because it's "more humane and less prone to error."

The group, which aims to limit but not abolish capital punishment, says the death penalty needs to be overhauled "from the moment of arrest to the moment of death." Aside from one-dose lethal injections, the 165-page study includes 38 other recommendations. States are urged to be transparent about the drugs used in executions, and to adopt new procedures for evaluating if a defendant is intellectually disabled. It also calls for new federal standards for accrediting forensic laboratories, and says they should operate independently of law enforcement.

"Without substantial revisions — not only to lethal injection, but across the board — the administration of capital punishment in America is unjust, disproportionate and very likely unconstitutional," said Mark Earley, a member of the Constitution Project and former attorney general of Virginia.

There was more fallout from the Oklahoma debacle on Tuesday when a Texas inmate tried to delay his May 13 execution by filing a federal civil rights lawsuit. Texas is one of eight states that already use the single-drug method, as recommended by the Constitution Project, but lawyers for Robert James Campbell say the bigger issue is the secrecy surrounding the drug's source. "The possible cause of Mr. Lockett's botched execution are all issues that have been, are, or could be problematic in Texas," reads the lawsuit. "There is a substantial risk that Mr. Campbell's execution could be as horrific as Mr. Lockett's."