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Dead Man Waking

Is it possible Timothy McVeigh was fully alert and utterly sentient when potassium chloride shot through his leg and stopped his heart? The tear witnesses saw well up in his left eye suggests that he might have been very conscious as lethal drugs burned his veins, took his breath, and seized his heart. There are lots of people who hope so. But Mark Heath is not one of them. "It gave me the creeps," Heath, an anesthesiologist and neuroscientist at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, says of the tear. "It is a classic sign of an anesthetized patient being awake." Heath found it disturbing to think that the federal government would torture McVeigh and other citizens it puts to death.

In fact lethal injection has become the execution method of choice in most jurisdictions precisely because it seems to induce a more dignified dispatch than either the electric chair or gas chamber. The idea is to "show respect and dignity for everyone involved," says Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dan Dunne. Toward this end a sedative, sodium thiopental, or Pentothal, is pumped into the condemned prisoner's blood stream, rendering him or her unconscious.

Prompted by reports of McVeigh's tear, however, Heath cast a clinical eye on this sequence of execution drugs. He did not like what he saw. For one thing he was puzzled by the choice of sedative. Sodium thiopental says Heath, "is an ultra-short acting barbiturate and we use it all the time in the operating room. There's a lot of room for error, and a lot of room for someone to wake up." Instances of patients waking up during surgery are well documented, he points out.

But what really disturbed Heath was the use of the second drug, pancuronium bromide. It is not, Heath realized, strictly necessary for the execution. Instead it paralyzes the condemned prisoner so thoroughly "that he looks peaceful and relaxed no matter what he is experiencing." A prisoner could awaken mid-execution and find himself "in incredible pain as the potassium is injected, and even worse, fully aware of suffocation as his lungs filled with fluid"- and yet the witnesses would get no indication that anything like this was taking place. To Heath this means just one thing: Pancuronium is administered primarily "so witnesses do not need to look at something unpleasant." The drug is "a chemical veil," says Heath. "It's like the leather mask they used to put over the faces of people in the electric chair, except it masks what is happening to the whole body. And you can't see that it is there."

Heath-who previously had been, in his words, "ambivalent" about the death penalty-began calling federal prison officials to learn more about what scientists call the protocol for execution drugs. His findings alarmed him as much as the drugs themselves: The guidelines for lethal injections, he was told, are a closely guarded secret, a startling fact confirmed by Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dunne. "We don't really make it available" Dunne says. The Bureau of Prisons will not say how much of each drug is used or whether the injection is administered by machine or directly by human executioners. "We just don't provide those details."

The secrecy, Dunne claims, is necessary "to protect the privacy of everyone involved"- even though the effect is to mask objective assessment of the federal government's execution methods as thoroughly as pancuronium can obscure a dying prisoner's agony.

The advent of lethal injection is itself a strange story involving much politics, scant science, and more than a little fraud. As long ago as 1973 Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, speculated that a "simple shot or tranquilizer" might make capital punishment more palatable to uneasy judges and the public. "Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it's like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him," Reagan said. Four years later Oklahoma passed the first lethal injection bill after one legislator received a single endorsement of the proposal from an anesthesiologist. Soon one state legislature after another made lethal injection their execution method of choice.

The sticky problem of how the process ought to work was left to prison wardens, who often sought help from veterinarians, the nearest stand-ins for doctors; their Hippocratic Oath prohibits giving advice on killing. In 1982 a New Jersey dentist in the state assembly sponsored a law specifying the combination of barbiturates and paralytic agent. To concoct the precise formulation, New Jersey and then Missouri called upon Fred Leuchter, who advertised himself as an engineer with execution expertise. Leuchter is also a notorious Holocaust revisionist and the subject of a 1999 documentary, Mr. Death. Leuchter tells Talk he constructed a device to deliver the drugs and that he came up with a formula after he examined medical studies on rabbits and pigs, and "extrapolated from there".

After a 1991 lawsuit exposed him as a charlatan, Leuchter left the execution consulting business, but the recipe he formulated for New Jersey and Missouri may well have been adopted by other states.

The Bureau of Prisons will not say whether it too relies on Leuchter's recipe but Leuchter himself believes the federal execution protocol is based on his work. Curiously, Leuchter agrees with part of Heath's assessment: Timothy McVeigh's execution, Leuchter claims, "took longer than it should have" leaving open the possibility that McVeigh was awake during his final minutes.

If McVeigh was indeed awake during his execution, it would not be the first time a lethal injection went awry. Indeed some lethal injection scenes can only be described as horrendous. Stephen McCoy began heaving and shaking and gasping during his execution in Texas in 1989, a reaction so violent that one witness fainted. In Illinois in 1990 a kink in IV tubing slowed the flow of drugs into Charles Walker, leaving him in prolonged and excruciating pain. In Missouri 1995 Emmitt Foster was seven minutes into his lethal injection when the chemicals abruptly stopped working. Foster gasped and convulsed; officials stopped the execution and drew blinds, blocking witnesses' view. And in June 2000 Bert Leroy Hunter of Missouri went into repeated and violent convulsions, his head and body jerking back and forth against his restraints in what one witness called "a violent and agonizing death."

Heath isn't the only scientist to have raised questions about the drugs used for lethal injection. "It's obvious to any anesthesiologist who looks into it that it's not a good protocol," he says. But his contention that pancuronium works to fool witnesses, reporters and even judges in to believing that execution is peaceful, "just like going to sleep," as witnesses often report- has never been brought before a federal appeals court. Indeed, though several state courts have upheld lethal injection, no federal appellate court has ever addressed the question of whether today's favored execution method constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. McVeigh's lawyers may have raised the issue had the Oklahoma City Bomber not abandoned his appeals.

McVeigh's, the first federal execution is 38 years, signals a new season and controversy. At a time when public support for the death penalty had eroded, polls showing that support for capital punishment has dropped 15% in the past 7 years, Heath's questions could spark renewed debate.

Heath has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Bureau of Prisons, hoping for more details about the federal government's lethal injections. He is not interested, he says, in designing a better mouse trap. Rather, he wants to show what he has come to see as "insidiousness" in an execution system that claims to be humane but that disguises a dying prisoner's agony from witnesses and the public.

The question of whether lethal injections is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment and whether it gives rise to indescribably agonizing death or torture prohibited under international treaties and conventions is of more than passing interest to the 19 prisoners currently on federal death row. When the issue is raised in federal court, which it no doubt will be, Heath predicts that the "chemical veil" drawn over execution by pancuronium will prove central: Judges, this scientists is convinced, "have not realized how the very process of execution can cover up the evidence of cruelty."

This article originally appeared in Talk Magazine. It is reprinted with permission.

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