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Death in the USA — a botched experimental execution

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Alabama wanted to kill a man by making him breathe nitrogen, based on a film. Except officials did not know how to.

I began my work against the death penalty in the United States (US) in 1981. It would be reasonable to suppose that by now, four decades on, I would have seen it all.

Not so. On September 22, Alabama lost a round in a ghoulish battle to execute Alan Miller. Initially, they promised a federal judge that they were ready to experiment with a novel method — nitrogen hypoxia (essentially, suffocating him by replacing oxygen in the air with pure nitrogen). The state then had to backtrack, saying they were not sure they knew how to do it, and so they would kill him by lethal injection.

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In one of those midnight battles with which I am achingly familiar, the Supreme Court voted five-to-four to let the Alabama executioners go ahead with their ritual sacrifice, but by then it was too late for their probing needles to find a vein. So, Miller is safe for a short while, though doubtless Alabama will set another date soon.

In one sense his close — and temporary — escape is a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the death penalty. The inspiration for dabbling with nitrogen hypoxia as a new “kinder, gentler” method of execution is, bizarrely, a television programme recorded several years ago by Michael Portillo, former shadow chancellor for Britain’s Conservative Party.

In the 1980s, then a member of parliament, Portillo voted to reintroduce capital punishment to the United Kingdom. The bill was defeated. His ardour for executions faded as he learned how many innocent men and women had been sentenced to die. When the subject came up again in the 1990s, he switched his vote. Thankfully, the United Kingdom never mustered a majority to step backwards to rejoin the execution governments.

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Meanwhile, in 2008, Portillo made a BBC documentary titled How to Kill a Human Being, focused on making any executions as humane as possible. For his film, he toured around the US considering — and rejecting — accepted execution methods, each of which he found barbaric. There was the electric chair: Jesse Tafero had a strong claim of innocence (his co-defendant, Sunny Jacobs, was later freed and now lives in Ireland). Tafero’s head caught fire when Florida electrocuted him in 1990. Portillo illustrated this in his documentary by running 2,400 Volts through a dead pig.

The gas chamber proved no better. The Mississippi Department of Corrections used Zyklon B for their executions. They allowed a BBC crew to film them testing this out on a black bunny rabbit, which died in agony (they were preparing to kill my African-American client Edward Earl Johnson). We sued on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz to put an end to this barbarism.

Next the proponents of the lethal injection “three-drug cocktail” claimed it was a more civilised way to kill someone. It was advertised as nothing more than the kind of anaesthetic applied every day in thousands of hospitals.

Yet if there is one rule, it is that the history of executions is full of false promises. They were ignoring an obvious problem: the Hippocratic Oath forbids medical professionals from “doing harm”. The task of inserting the needle was delegated to technicians who had little skill. Hence even Dr Jay Chapman, who invented the three-drug cocktail, decried botched executions carried out by incompetent people who could not find a vein.

By the way, the “three drugs” are a sedative, a paralytic and a poison.— Al Jazeera

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