Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Baze v. Rees, No. 07-5439, a case challenging the carrying out the death penalty in Tennessee by the administration of a three drug cocktail; the initial use of a short acting barbiturate intended to induce a deep state of unconsciousness, followed by pancuronium, a profound muscle paralyzing agent for the purpose of minimizing movement of the soon-to-be-deceased resulting from the action of the third drug, potassium chloride, which in the absence of the barbiturate and pancuronium can cause intense pain and random violent movements. The pharmacological effect of the potassium chloride is to stop the beating of the heart. The violent reaction if potassium chloride is administered without pancuronium can be very upsetting to witnesses to the death. In other words, the pancuronium is administered for the benefit of witnesses to minimize their discomfiture. Likewise, if pancuronium were to be administered by itself without a barbiturate beforehand, death would occur by slow, excruciating suffocation with full comprehension by the prisoner. Observers would have no idea of the pain and effects of the drug because the paralyzing action of the drug would eliminate movement. There have been a number of instances across the country, never in Tennessee, when executions have gone awry because the non-physicians carrying out the procedure (the Hippocratic oath prevents physicians from killing fellow human beings) administered either or both of these drugs before the barbiturate.
In the case being heard by the Court, the contention is that the administration of the three drug cocktail violates the cruel and unusual punishment dictates of the U.S. Constitution. From published reports of argument, a majority of the Court is apparently skeptical of this claim. I can't help but wonder if the Court's reaction arises from the same type of thinking that would cause a technician charged with putting a fellow human being to death in the described manner. That is, the prisoner is going to die because of the commission of some heinous act as a result of which no mercy is deserved. I can't help but wonder whether the improper administrations of the drugs on reported occasions were done deliberately to satisfy the longing for punishment that drives the existence of the death penalty itself.