The Death Penalty Is Always Inhumane — And Lethal Injections Are No Exception

Molly Longman

After a series of legal battles, a Supreme Court order was released at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, July 14, that allowed for the first execution carried out by the federal government since 2003the lethal injection of Daniel Lewis Lee. Two days later, the highest Court in the land handed down a 3 a.m. order on Tuesday allowing for a second federal execution of Wesley Purkey.

The pair of executions came after U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced last year that the Trump Administration would resume federal executions, adding more recently that officials “owe it to the victims of these horrific crimes.” Support for the death penalty has waned in America in recent years, though; its use has been abolished by 22 states, and several others haven’t carried out an execution in a decade, according to The Death Penalty Information Center

When the death penalty is implemented now, it is almost exclusively done by lethal injection, a method that was once thought — like the electric chair and the guillotine before it — to be a “humane” way of carrying out what many would say is an inherently inhumane act: killing another person. Lethal injection executions have been thought to be a “modern” way of killing someone — “painless.” But the presumption that lethal injections are anything close to pain-free is wrong.

In the past, federal executions were carried out via administration of multiple drugs — now, the Trump Administration has said they’ll only be using one drug: pentobarbital.

Pentobarbital is a barbiturate — a group of drugs that depress the nervous system and often have a sedative effect, that are used in much smaller doses to treat insomnia. When used in high doses for lethal injections, it causes a person’s nervous system to totally shut down in a manner similar to an overdose. 

Jonathan I. Groner, a professor of surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, who’s done extensive work related to the death penalty, contends that pentobarbital is a “particularly bad” method of execution, for a couple of reasons.

“If the IV isn’t placed in the vein as it’s supposed to be, or it’s injected too fast so that some of the medication leaks out of the vein, that drug can cause actual chemical burns,” Dr. Groner says.

Another issue: It’s hard to access. “No pharmaceutical company wants to be associated with a drug that kills people,” Dr. Groner says. Because of this, officials have had to get creative when getting their hands on the drug. In Texas, executioners had to turn to compounding pharmacies, which typically make alternative versions of drugs that are already on the market. But if the pharmacies create a version of pentobarbital that isn’t potent enough or that’s contaminated in some way, it could lead to a botched execution. This happened on more than one occasion in Texas: William Rayford writhed on his gurney and Anthony Allen Shore said as he died that he could feel the drugs “burning,” according to a Buzzfeed News investigation. “We used to burn people at the stake, now we just do it chemically,” Dr. Groner says. 

Days before he was executed, Lee’s lawyers argued using the drug to kill him would be cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Eighth Amendment. “Pentobarbital will likely cause needless suffering,” lawyers argued in the application for a stay of execution filed in the Supreme Court on behalf of Lee on July 13. Refinery29 obtained a copy of this application. 

“A majority of inmates executed using pentobarbital suffered flash pulmonary edema during their execution,” the document continues, siting the expertise of two doctors— Mark Edgar, MD, a pathologist at Emory University, and Gail Van Norman, MD, a professor in the department of anesthesiology and pain medicine. “Flash pulmonary edema is an excruciating drowning sensation caused by foam or froth in the airways. Because it occurs ‘virtually immediately during and after high-dose barbiturate injection.’” 

The document adds that prisoners may experience “sensations of drowning and asphyxia” that “result in extreme pain, terror and panic.” It asserts that this feeling “is deliberately elicited in ‘the enhanced interrogation technique’ called waterboarding,” and is “one of the most powerful, excruciating feelings known to man.” The DOJ did not respond to Refinery29’s request for comment. 

This isn’t to say that using multiple drugs is a “better” option for the state-sponsored killing of a person. The three-drug cocktail that over a dozen states have used involves administering a barbiturate, often sodium thiopental; another drug that causes all the body’s muscles to arrest; and a dose of potassium chloride that stops the heart. However, the barbiturate can be short-acting, and may wear off by the time the third drug, the lethal dose to the heart, is injected. 

The use of lethal injection appeals to some people because of its implied ties to science and medicine, signaling that some level of research and thought has been put into the practice. However, Dr. Groner says, “If you look way back in history, there was much more research done on the electric chair than there was ever done on lethal injection. [Thomas] Edison tested it on animals and so forth… But lethal injection started out basically with someone writing a recipe out on a dinner napkin. There was never a clinical trial I know of.” 

Since the first official use of the practice in the U.S. in 1982, more than 7% of all executions carried out by lethal injection have been botched, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. That’s a higher rate than any other execution method used in the last 120 years, including hanging, electrocution, lethal gassing, and firing squad — no wonder Dr. Groner calls lethal injection a “massive medical charade.”

Dr. Groner says there aren’t studies where you see lethal injection tested on animals, and researchers haven’t found a foolproof way to effectively put people down without causing pain — though veterinarians do it with dogs almost daily.

Dr. Groner has met two men from Ohio who survived their own botched lethal injections, including death row inmate Romell Broom, whose IV lines could not be inserted by officials after two hours of attempts by prison EMTs and a doctor. Another, Alva Campbell, had extensive medical problems that prompted officials to allow him to use a wedge pillow during his execution to help him breathe while lying on his back. But, in the death chamber, executioners couldn’t find a viable vein. They abandoned the execution, but “let him keep the pillow,” Dr. Groner says.

Another horrifically botched execution was that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in April of 2014. His execution took 43 minutes before he died. A vein exploded in that time, according to Tulsa World. 

And methods haven’t really gotten better since Lockett’s death, nor were they ever good to begin with. “Lethal injection is just as brutal today as it was when it first came about,” says Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender in Arizona who works keeping death row inmates out of the death chamber. 

And for those who are thinking: Well, these men committed heinous crimes — they deserve to die, even if it means suffering? Baich says: “As citizens and as a society, we should be better than that.” 

I asked Baich what could be a viable replacement for lethal injection. “The alternative is life without the possibility of parole,” he says. “If that person is never going to get out of prison, that is an effective punishment… They have experimented with different drug combinations, and what we know from the experts is that the combinations and the single-use drug still cause pain and cause suffering.” 

There are, of course, other reasons to back off from the death penalty than just faulty methods of implementation. Its history is inextricably linked to anti-Black racism, explains Sam Spital, the director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “That history persists today,” he says. “It is the ultimate expression of our society’s denial of the humanity of Black people. It’s reflected in studies showing that people convicted of killing white victims are far more likely to receive the death penalty.” 

Between 1988 and 2019, in over two-thirds of the more than 500 cases in which the attorney general authorized federal prosecutors to seek death, the defendant was Black or Latinx, Spital adds. 

On top of this, Dr. Groner points out that it’s odd to go to such lengths to kill death row inmates at a time when prisoners are being hit hard by the coronavirus, with COVID-19 cases in federal and state prisons more than five times more prevalent than that of the general population, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association.

“We have a public health crisis and all the resources of the government should be directed to try to take care of this critical situation we’re in,” Baich adds. “Instead resources and attention are being diverted to trying to carry out a handful of executions.”

Earlene Peterson — whose daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter were tortured and killed by Lee and his accomplice — didn’t support Lee’s execution at all, and told CNN that she didn’t want it “done in her name.” But, it’s time to really consider whether it should be done in anyone’s name at all.

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My big reward for finishing the class is watching the final episode of Westworld… WOW! Can’t wait for season four. I eat some ice cream and then carrots. Bed around 2 a.m.Daily Total: $174.39 Day Seven9 a.m. — I wake up and see that I have no meetings today! What is life? I sleep a bit longer and decide to work later tonight. My loyal cat joins me in bed. He’s weirdly protective when I’m sleeping alone.11 a.m. — A. made coffee and decided to work from home today. Tomorrow his company is doing massive layoffs and he’s anxious about the process. He’s pretty sure his job is safe, but I’m not that optimistic. I’m worried for him and all of our friends back home. Both of us have a hard time concentrating with all the news and impending doom. I also find out about Trump’s executive order banning new visa applications. This is going to completely gut the higher education system. Universities like mine have a heavy international student population. I spiral into news reading, toxic Facebook scrolling, and Reddit. I snack on some Doritos during the day.5:30 p.m. — Put our grocery list together and sort through paper coupons. For the most part, we’ve been using Instacart to get groceries, but the prices are SO HIGH. I understand why and try to tip well too, but I decide to brave the chaos that is Arizona right now and go shopping. Mask, hand sanitizer, list, and coupons ready. Buy frozen French fries, chicken strips, chicken breasts, guacamole, two avocados, frozen potatoes, lettuce and spinach bags, provolone, green grapes, salsa, dressing, croutons, red pepper flakes, gnocchi, two bags of coffee beans, strawberries, parmesan Goldfish for me, Pringles, tortilla chips, dish soap, napkins, small paper plates, and replaceable dish brush heads. Can’t find hand soap refills, gallon plastic bags, or frozen gyoza. I pay with our joint account. $84.467:30 p.m. — I went a little crazy last week with Loft clearance. I try on all the clothes and realize the sizing is completely made up. There’s a pair of elastic pleated shorts and a peplum shirt that fit A. and a dress that I could fit two people in! I ask if he wants to keep the shorts for around the house (LOL). It’s always so tough buying stuff online. I usually get things too small and overcompensated I guess? Only four of the nine things are in the Yes Pile.8:30 p.m. — A. and I have sex for the first time all week. We joke about how hot our bedroom is, especially for being newlyweds. Both of us are starving and try to find a local Mexican food place that’s open. Nothing, of course, we live in Mesa and everything closes at like 8. We cave and order Chipotle bowls, chips, and queso for pickup. We finish the last season of Bojack Horseman…and talk until past midnight about the impact of the show. Highly recommend if you like watching animated shows about depression, alcoholism, and the troubles of fame? $31Daily Total: $115.46Money Diaries are meant to reflect individual women’s experiences and do not necessarily reflect Refinery29’s point of view. Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity or harmful behavior. The first step to getting your financial life in order is tracking what you spend — to try on your own, check out our guide to managing your money every day. For more money diaries, click here. Do you have a Money Diary you’d like to share? Submit it with us here. Have questions about how to submit or our publishing process? Read our Money Diaries FAQ doc here: what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?A Week In Seattle, WA, On A $73,000 SalaryA Week In New York, NY On A $1,600 StipendA Week In Portland, OR, On A $60,000 Salary

  • Lebanese Officials Are Investigating The Beirut Explosion As Death Toll Surpasses 100

    The fallout from the massive explosion in Beirut on Tuesday continues, as officials search for answers about what happened. The city’s port was demolished and damage extended as far as 10 kilometers (six miles) away from the site of the blast. As of Wednesday morning, more than 100 people have been declared dead and over 4,000 people injured, while hundreds have been reported missing. While the extent of the damage is continuing to be calculated, it is devastating to a country that was already facing a pandemic and economic collapse. A two week state of emergency has been declared, with the High Defense Council calling it a “devastated city” as officials continue to new and emerging details. Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told AFP Beirut that the blast has left up to 300,000 people homeless. The damage extends over half of the capitol city and the cost is being estimated at up to $5 billion. Among those killed by the blast were 10 firemen who were on-site at the time of the explosion.According to Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, the cause of the explosion is still unclear but the investigation will focus on the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, an agricultural fertilizer, that was being stored in a portside warehouse. CNN reported that according to local media, “the head of Lebanon’s customs authority said he had sent six memos to the country’s judiciary warning that substances being stored in the port were dangerous to the public.”“What happened… will not pass without accountability,” Al Jazeera reported Diab said in a televised address. “Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price.” According to CNN, Lebanese President Michel Aoun vowed that whoever was responsible for the explosion would be held accountable and face “severe punishment.”“We in the health sector are suffering from a crisis in the face of the coronavirus, to which this human and health catastrophe has now been added,” Lebanon’s Health Minister Hamad Hassan said according to Lebanon’s state-run NNA news. “It requires everyone to engage positively from politicians, political parties, authorities, and from all friendly and brotherly countries because we suffer from a shortage in the number of beds and a lack of equipment to help injured people and those are in critical conditions.”President Trump said that the U.S. would “be there to help” but also speculated, without evidence, that the explosion was the result of “a terrible attack” and “a bomb of some kind.”Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Explosion In Beirut Kills At Least 7016 Or More Killed In Nova Scotia Mass ShootingHow Women In Mexico Are Striking Against Femicide

  • A Beginner’s Guide To Reading Tea Leaves

    The first time I was introduced to tea leaf readings was through Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban at the ripe age of 8. And I’ll be honest — Professor Trelawney’s reaction to finding out that Harry had “the grim” in his teacup (an omen of death) was a pretty scary scene for me at the time. But reading tea leaves isn’t just a spooky part of your favorite fantasy franchise — it’s a real practice, and a divination tool that’s not just used by fictional wizards at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.Sandra Mariah Wright and Leanne Marrama, two Salem-based witches and authors of Reading the Leaves: An Intuitive Guide to the Ancient Art and Modern Magic of Tea Leaf Divination, believe that anyone who wants to can use this divination tool — in fact, it’s perfect for beginners.“It’s a great way to get started with divination because nobody really expects anybody to memorize what every symbol means,” Wright tells Refinery29. “It’s very open to interpretation.”“I feel that tea leaf readings are for anyone,” Marrama tells Refinery29. “It is a great tool to empower people and help people take control of the future that beholds them.” Marrama points out that tea leaf readings — also called tasseography — can help people make peace with their past. More specifically, she says that “it opens up the soul.” So if you’re ready to dive in to the world of divination, reading your own tea leaves is a great place to start. Here, both Wright and Marrama give us a run-down of everything you’ll need to know. The equipmentFirst thing’s first — the cup. “You’ve got to choose a tea cup, it can’t be a straight up-and-down coffee mug,” Wright explains. “You want those sides to flare out at an angle because you want the leaves to be able to cling to the them.” You should also make sure that your tea cup comes with a saucer of some kind — you’ll see why when we get more into the process.There’s also no need for a specially designed mug, either — you can choose a plain tea cup that you already own, or purchase one that jumps out to you. Just make sure it’s a lighter color, so the leaves are easier to see.Now for the tea. The best kind to use for a successful reading is loose leaf tea with a broad leaf, and in particular Wright says that oolong or gun powder teas are the best options. Both Wright and Marrama recommend this gunpowder tea that you can purchase from Amazon.“[These teas] with the long leaves are the ones that make great designs,” Wright says. “You don’t really want to use a tea-bag tea. The kind of tea that’s in tea bags has been processed into tiny little pieces and it won’t make the shapes the way a nice oolong or gunpowder loose tea will.” It’s all about the atmosphereOnce you’ve got your tea leaf reading gear all settled, it’s time to mentally prepare for your reading. Do some deep breathing or a meditation beforehand to get in the right, chilled-out mindset. Wright and Marrama recommend something called “grounding” — their book describes it as feeling “fully present in your body, and connected to the strong, stable energy of the Earth.” It’s all about being calm and at peace, whatever that means for you.Think about what you’ll be feeling, hearing, and smelling during this experience. Do you want music? Maybe you want to light a candle or some kind of incense. Set the tone for how your session will go through your senses and set some intentions for your reading.“Let yourself open up while you’re sitting there. Let it come naturally,” Marrama says. “Meditation, a peaceful atmosphere, those are the things that really make that ability grow.” Both of the Salem-based witches emphasize not feeling nervous during your first time reading the leaves. “You don’t have to be perfect in this,” Marrama says. “People make mistakes.”Setting up your atmosphere to be calm after your reading is also an important thing to remember. “Realize that some things may come up that are emotional or leave you with a lot to think about, so you want to have a space to do that,” Wright says. “Giving some thought for after the reading is very important to think about.” Drinking the teaYou’ll want to put about half of a teaspoon of your loose leaf tea in the tea cup. Once your water is boiling, you’ll pour it to fill the cup around 3/4 of the way. Don’t add any milk, cream, honey, or sugar — nothing. And let it steep for three minutes before drinking.During those few minutes, think of the questions you want answered or what things in your life you need guidance on right now. Then, you’ll begin to drink the tea until only a teaspoon or two of water remains. Flipping your cupOnce you’ve reached the end of your tea, you’ll want to swirl the cup in the air in front of you three times. According to Wright and Marrama’s book, “Three is a magic number, and this sets the leaves in motion. It’s another way for you to add your energy to the reading.”After you’ve swirled your tea, you’ll place the saucer upside down on top of your cup and flip it over, allowing the remaining water to drain into the saucer. Wait another minute or two, focusing once again on your questions and intentions for the reading.When you pick up your tea cup, make sure that the handle is closest to your body once it’s flipped right side up. Then, you’ll be able to look at the leaves that are leftover both inside your cup and on your saucer. Interpreting your leavesNow for the fun part — but don’t worry, you don’t have to be a professional tea leaf reader to interpret what’s in your cup. As you look into your leaves, see what shapes and symbols jump out to you first. For example, a clump of tea leaves may look like a heart to you, or a specific letter, or a number, or even an animal. Take a few moments to study what’s inside — more images may become clearer as you continue to look.As you gather these symbols, see how they fit into your life and how they relate to you personally.“The personal imagery is first, what connects to you and what it means to you,” Marrama explains. “A horseshoe could mean luck to someone, but different to somebody who recently lost their beloved horse. A rose could mean love, but it could mean a message from somebody who’s crossed over. You should apply what you feel within your own soul and heart first.”Wright agrees. “We love people to realize that what they connect with when they first look in the cup is oftentimes the most powerful messages,” she says. “They’re the messages where the symbol means something to you personally even if, in the history of tea leaf reading, that symbol may have other meanings. It will have a layer of meaning for you that goes beyond just what is already there.”In Reading the Leaves, Wright and Marrama have provided an enormous glossary you can refer back to if you want to check in on the traditional meaning of the symbols you’re seeing. For example, if you see a boat, Wright and Marrama’s book says it means, “a meaningful friend or lover will arrive in your life.” If you see a bird, that could mean good luck is on its way. We won’t go into every symbol here, but there are tons of meanings for the little things you’ll notice during your reading.If you end up pulling a Harry Potter and find a frightening omen in your cup, don’t panic. “Remember that you have the power to change the future,” Wright and Marrama write in Reading the Leaves. “Your reaction to the information you receive, your decisions, and your actions all have an impact of how things turn out.”The most important thing to remember, both witches say, is to have fun with it. “Try not to take it so deeply serious,” Wright says. “It’s a beautiful, light way to start getting involved with building your own intuitive skills. Being able to trust yourself and trust your gut is much more important than being right.”Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?How Uranus, Planet Of Rebels, Rules A Generation6 Crystals That'll Uplift Your Bad MoodShould You Get A Virtual Psychic Reading?