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Questioning The Myth Of a Painless Execution
Alberta Phillips
Austin American-Statesman
12/11/2003

The American Veterinary Medical Association several years ago condemned use of
pancuronium bromide to euthanize animals, saying it was inhumane.
It is used to execute humans.

 

It was execution 33 that sent death row chaplain Carroll Pickett to a therapist in 1989.

He sought help not because Carlos DeLuna, 27, behaved more like a frightened, withdrawn teenager than a hardened killer. Nor was it that the ninth-grade dropout had taken to calling him "Daddy." It was Carlos' pulse. It didn't stop.

In the 32 executions Pickett had witnessed before that one, the condemneds' pulses had stopped before the second lethal chemical was injected into their veins. Carlos' pulse continued after the first drug and anesthesia sodium thiopental flowed through one of the young man's veins. Pickett could feel Carlos' pulse as he clutched his ankle and stared into his big brown eyes, which never blinked. Carlos' ankle jerked after the second lethal drug, pancuronium bromide, dripped into another vein. His eyes remained open. The pulse kept throbbing until a third drug kicked in.

Pickett sought out a Dallas therapist because he believed Carlos endured an agonizing death due to the use of pancuronium bromide, which is outlawed in Texas for euthanizing animals in shelters. If he is right, Carlos was awake as the pancuronium bromide collapsed his diaphragm and lungs; conscious as a third drug -- potassium chloride -- shut down his heart.

As prison chaplain from 1980 to 1995, Pickett led dozens of inmates through the death routine, always assuring them it would be quick and painless. Of the 95 men Pickett prepared for execution, he is most haunted by one: Carlos DeLuna.

Pickett believes Carlos was conscious, though he didn't call out. Fourteen year later he knows why: Medical experts now say pancuronium bromide, a neuromuscular blocking agent, can veil the suffering it unleashes. Carlos was sentenced to death for robbing and killing 24-year-old Wanda Jean Lopez, a clerk at a Corpus Christi service station.

Dr. Mark Heath, a professor of clinical anesthesia at Columbia University, likened the drug to a "chemical veil" that masks suffering of people who aren't fully sedated during surgery or executions. Here's how he described the drug's effects in an affidavit for a Texas inmate who is challenging the state's use of the drug in lethal injections:

"Pancuronium bromide makes the patient look serene because of its paralytic effect on the muscles. The face muscles cannot move or contract to show pain and suffering. It therefore provides a chemical veil over the proceedings.

"There are significant risks that the inmate in Texas' lethal injection procedure will not be rendered unconscious by the sodium thiopental (anesthesia) and will therefore experience the psychologically horrific effects of pancuronium bromide."

The drug was controversial before Texas death row inmate Tomas Gallo filed his challenge to it in November. The American Veterinary Medical Association several years ago condemned use of pancuronium bromide to euthanize animals, saying it was inhumane. The Texas Legislature this year came to a similar conclusion. It passed a bill that makes it illegal for animal shelters to use pancuronium bromide to put down a dog or cat. Even reptiles must be spared a death by pancuronium bromide under a bill that Gov. Rick Perry signed in May.

Even so, Texas prison officials say they will continue using the drug in the lethal cocktail the state uses to execute people.

"Our medical staff has assured us that the combination of drugs that we use makes the person incapable of feeling pain while the execution is carried out," said Mike Viesca, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The Rev. Pickett, the author of "Within These Walls," a memoir of his years as chaplain on death row, believes otherwise. Last week, he described Carlos' last minutes prior to execution.

"Carlos was basically very scared," Pickett said. "I said, `It will take about seven to 12 seconds and you will be asleep. Don't worry. You've already done the hard part with the needles.'

"He said, `OK' and thanked me for being there and being his last friend . . . He never took his eyes off me. I moved back to my position at the foot of the gurney.

"He asked if I could hold his hand, but I said I couldn't do that because `You will be strapped down, so I'll hold your right leg and squeeze it so you know I will be right here, right here.' "

That night things didn't go as usual. The pulse didn't fade quickly and the leg jerked.

Pickett still sees the frightened, questioning eyes of Carlos DeLuna and wrestles with his conscience about whether he misled the young man about his execution being swift and painless -- like falling asleep.

"He gave me a look in his face, which I interpreted to mean, `Did you tell me the truth? Because this is taking longer than 7 seconds.' "

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed an
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit
research and educational purposes only.

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