Washington Law Review


Seema K. Shah


On July 23, 2014, an execution in Arizona lasted nearly two hours, with the inmate struggling to breathe and gasping over 600 times, according to a local reporter witnessing the execution. This was the third example of a botched execution in seven months. The Supreme Court last evaluated the constitutionality of execution by lethal injection in 2008, but did not provide a clear standard for evaluating risks. Since that time, the lethal injection landscape has transformed. States are using entirely new drugs and drug combinations, and sometimes obtain these drugs from questionable sources, making it hard to predict what will happen in any given execution. The Court has now granted certiorari to examine the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol in the case of Glossip v. Gross. Although it is increasingly common to refer to lethal injection executions as experimental, this Article is the first to conduct a rigorous analysis of whether and to what extent executions by lethal injection involve the conduct of research and therefore should be analyzed under the ethical and regulatory framework that governs biomedical research. I argue that an important factor driving this high error rate is that the use of novel drugs, drug combinations, and dosages in lethal injection executions is a type of research. More specifically, it is poorly designed experimentation that is not based on evidence. If the death penalty is justified, individual inmates are being exposed to uncertain (and sometimes unnecessary) risks in order to obtain benefits for others by furthering the underlying aims of capital punishment. This insight suggests three important conclusions. First, states should draw from existing scholarship on ethics and regulations that apply to biomedical research with captive and vulnerable populations. Prisoners are considered a vulnerable population, and experimental executions involving prisoners should abide by the general principles that are applicable to research: respect for autonomy, non-maleficence, and justice. Second, legal safeguards that follow from these principles should be applied to executions—in particular, states should ask for informed consent from prisoners to modifications of lethal injection protocols, obtain independent review by a regulatory body like the Food and Drug Administration, and apply a standard requiring risk minimization in the choice of drugs and procedures. Finally, states should systematically gather data as they engage in experimental execution.

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