May 7, 2015 | 5 Comments

Lethal Injection (Chapman, Wiseman, Dawson, Deutsch)

From the curators: Lethal injection is currently the primary method of capital punishment in the United States. This pharmaceutical design was first instituted as a method of execution in the U.S. in the state of Oklahoma in 1977. Its design has taken different forms in the ensuing four decades due to changes in law and policy, often dependent on the state in which the execution takes place. The first lethal injection protocol was designed in a consultation between a medical examiner and an anesthesiologist (Drs. Jay Chapman and Stanley Deutsch, respectively) even though major medical organizations in the U.S. forbid their members’ participation in executions. Their design was precipitated by a Republican state representative (Bill Wiseman), and a Democratic state senator (Bill Dawson) in Oklahoma who sought a “more humane” alternative to the electric chair, gas chamber, or firing squad. Chapman proposed the original compound: a tripartite combination of sodium thiopental (an anesthetic), pancuronium bromide (a paralytic), and potassium chloride (used to induce cardiac arrest, which would be excruciating without the other two drugs). The initial 1977 statute was deliberately broad, leaving the exact choice of drug(s), dosage, and administration up to local Department of Corrections officials. Current lethal injection protocols are designed using several different drug types and combinations, due to difficulty procuring from pharmacies that have discontinued production or banned drug sales for use in capital punishment. In response, some states have turned to lightly regulated compounding pharmacies. This intersection of design and violence is extraordinarily complex, highlighting a criminal justice system in which racial and economic bias is endemic and a guilty verdict in a capital case can result in a full exoneration many years later. The U.S. Supreme Court has just begun hearing a challenge to the constitutionality of the lethal injection brought by inmates on death row in Oklahoma, returning the debate to the birthplace of the lethal injection cocktail. The challenge is against the three-drug protocol in use there, focusing specifically on the effectiveness of midazolam—the sedative used in the botched execution of Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett in 2014—and whether its use violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. Currently, 32 U.S. states (as well as the U.S. government and the U.S. military) allow the death penalty for certain crimes; 18 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S in 1976—and lethal injection was first used in Texas in 1982, on convicted murderer Charles Brooks1,232 people have been executed using this method. This is the final post in the Design and Violence online curatorial experiment.

The following interview was conducted via e-mail between the Design and Violence team and Ricky Jackson, who was exonerated and released from prison in November 2014 after serving 39 years, three months, and nine days—the longest time in prison of any defendant exonerated in U.S. history—some of which was spent on Death Row.

The design of the lethal injection cocktail has been in the news a lot recently. Do you regard the lethal injection as any more or less violent than any of the other methods of execution currently allowed in the U.S.?

Irrespective of the method by which one is executed, it is very misleading to argue whether lethal injection is more violent than other forms of execution. Executions, by their very nature, are acts of violence.

Can you speak a little about the prolonged threat of death over years spent on Death Row? It is almost impossible to imagine, but there must be a psychology to Death Row–waiting for death–that is severely compounded by the knowledge that you have been wrongfully convicted, by the years of your life you cannot get back, the threat of death, the misery and violence of prison life, and by the psychological and emotional strain you know your friends and family are experiencing. Can you help us understand, through relating some of your own experiences, what it might feel like? Was the threat of death ever-present, or put in the background by more immediate concerns?

All too often discussions surrounding executions are primarily centered on particular methods of executions and whether one method may, or may not, be more humane than another. To date, there have been very few discussions regarding the severe physical, psychological, and emotional torture inflicted upon those waiting to die. In most cases, the condemned can literally languish on death row for decades before they are finally executed. I spent two and a half years on death row and survived two execution dates. I came within 60 days of my first scheduled execution and within 30 days of my last. The emotional and psychological trauma of life on death row is without a doubt one of the most horrifying experiences a human being can endure. Every day I woke up on death row with my first and last thought being death and dying. Every thought and emotion you have throughout the day is grounded in worry, stress, and the fear of when you will breathe your last breath. That compounded by the fact you are innocent makes the time spent there even more unbearable. The stress becomes so overwhelming until psychological symptoms start to manifest themselves in the physical. If I had to sum up my experience on death row in as few words as possible, I would equate it to an animal shelter where stray dogs and cats are kept until they are finally euthanized.

What are the subtle violences of being wrongfully sentenced to die? What are the great ones? What is the daily violence of death row?

Fear, intimidation, isolation, deprivation, manipulation, confiscation, loss of self-esteem and personal autonomy are just some of the subtle nuances of the violence experienced by the condemned, innocent or not. Some of the greater examples of violence are: being confined to an 8-by-12-foot cell for years on end before finally being dragged down a long dark corridor into a tiny white room, strapped to a cold slab, and pumped full of poison that may or may not kill you the first time around.

What role do you think forms of structural violence like racism or classism play in death penalty convictions, and in wrongful convictions more generally?

By all accounts, class and demographics play a very pivotal role in determining who does and doesn’t get the death penalty. Visit any death house in America and you will find that poor people–black, white, and brown–are disproportionately represented. A study recently released, titled “The Death Lottery,” clearly outlines race, class, and demography as being the leading indicators in determining who gets the death penalty. The darker and the poorer the defendant, the more exponentially high their chances of being a prime candidate for the “Death Lotto.” Using these flawed criteria automatically puts the accused at the extreme disadvantage of already being deemed guilty due to belonging to a particular race and class, which in turn, I believe, makes wrongful convictions that much more likely.

The nineteenth-century author Fyodor Dostoyevsky suggested that, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” What do you think pharmaceutical designs for execution like the lethal injection cocktail tell us about society in 2015?

Executions by any other method are nonetheless extremely cruel and unusual. To promote ourselves around the world as champions of human rights is a huge misnomer in light of the fact that we lead the world in incarcerating and executing our very own citizens.

Are people more ambivalent about execution when it’s medicalized, “cleaned up,” and made more palatable?

Yes, people are a great deal more ambivalent, when executions are staged from a medical standpoint. Generally, we tend to associate medicine with feelings of wellness, healing, and of something wrong being made right. However, this is exactly why the pharmaceutical aspect was brought into play: to lend an atmosphere of legitimacy to an otherwise gruesome process, and to placate whatever sensibilities we may have about executions in general.

Do you believe in the death penalty? Did you before you were wrongfully imprisoned?

At no point in my life have I ever believed in executions, nor the ludicrous reasons for why we continue to participate in such a cruel and barbaric practice.


Is meeting violence with violence the most effective design for a healthy society?

  1. May 9, 2015, 4:32 pm


    I Work With Dozens Of Ricky Jacksons In The US

    Never! Meeting violence with violence only perpetuates the cycle of violence and creates more victims, and results in incalculable costs for individuals and society that extend for generations. Our nation’s problem (and disgrace) is that too many people don’t see the death penalty as a form of violence. Hopefully people reading Ricky Jackson’s interview here will start to understand that it is. Thank you for performing this public service.

  2. May 11, 2015, 6:10 pm

    Ron Steiner

    Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, board chair

    Thank you Ricky for your profound sharing on the death penalty execution method(s) and attempts to “sanitize” a reprehensible and violent act. Your expertise is something everyone should read and hear about. I can not add to your first-hand accounts, but would like to mention the issue of an execution creating yet another victim family. An important aspect of the abolition movement is hearing the voices of murder victim family members. Their collective voices, like those of people exonerated, are very important. An execution by the state creates yet another murder victim family. The innocent members of the executed go through the same horror, grief and loss that any murder victim family member does. These voices need to be heard as well.
    Peace, and thank you Ricky
    Ron Steiner, Salem Oregon

  3. June 4, 2015, 7:00 pm

    […] its last entry earlier this month–Ricky Jackson, a fully exonerated Death Row prisoner, wrote on the design of the lethal injection compound. Over its eighteen-month lifespan, Design and Violence has manifested as an online curatorial […]

  4. December 28, 2016, 5:28 am

    Joseph F. Gennaro, Jr.

    State Murder w/o Suffering

    In modern times this topic was first seriously considered during the French Revolution. Then, in order to kill those deemed guilty of sufficiently serious were killed by a deice called the guillotine. The prisoner/victim was killed by almost instantaneous decapitation by a falling blade. Death was certain, rapid and free of pain.This method of state sponsored execution was not limited to the times of the Revolution. It was the official method up to and thru 1981 when the Death Penalty itself was abolished in France. IF there is to be such a Penalty this should probably b considered the Method of Choice. However, we have seen this penalty applied almost arbitrarily and its adoption probably should be preceded by a serious discussion of whether this Extreme Penalty should be applied at all.

  5. January 26, 2017, 11:02 pm

    Yang Zhang

    Death penalty, well as passages above suggested is violent and cruel, upon which, I agree. But just imagine, if the victim is the most important one of yours, what would you do with the murdered? He or she is simply unforgivable! Even death penalty cannot relieve…