In April 2017, with its supply of lethal injection drugs about to expire and with 32 inmates still on its death row, the state of Arkansas announced that it would perform eight executions over an 11-day period. Though legal problems ultimately halted half of them, four were carried out as originally planned. What happened in Arkansas during those executions tells, in condensed form, the story of lethal injection's recent history in the United States.
This chapter traces the early history of lethal injection, focusing specifically on its first serious consideration in New York at the end of the 19th century. Chapter 2 suggests that this early legislative history—dominated by arguments about lethal injection's humanity and cost—foreshadowed events that would unfold almost a century later in Oklahoma where two legislators pushed for yet another change in this country' execution arsenal and sought an alternative to electrocution.It describes what happened in Oklahoma in 1977 to make it the first state to adopt lethal injection as its method of execution. It focuses on the role played by Jay Chapman who developed the first lethal injection drug cocktail. It argues that his choice of drugs for use in lethal injection was anything but scientific. It traces the diffusion of lethal injection and shows how other states imitated Chapman's unscientific approach.
This chapter examines the post-2009 collapse of the standard three drug cocktail. It shows how because of an inability to obtain those drugs states began to experiment with new drugs and drug combinations and to do so under the cloak of secrecy. The shift from one dominant drug protocol to many was made possible and precipitated by a variety of factors including a new legal doctrine that granted states wide latitude to experiment with their drugs and shortages of the drugs used in the three-drug cocktail. By the end of 2020, states had used at least ten distinct drug protocols in their executions. Some protocols were used multiple times, while some were used just once. Even so, the traditional three-drug protocol was all but forgotten.
This chapter describes what happened to executions by lethal injection from 2010-2020. It offers previously unavailable data on the pattern of mishaps that occurred during that decade, the reasons they occurred, and how states, death row inmates, and others reacted to those incidents.
States responded to the kind of mishaps described in Chapter 5 in two ways. First, some state departments of corrections modified their execution procedures in an attempt tomake mishaps less likely. Such changes included adding consciousness checks and mandating that the IV be clearly visible. On the other hand, some states chose to make it harder to identify or label any irregularity in the execution chamber as a departure from their protocols and procedures. They introduced greater ambiguity and discretion into their procedures. Doing so afforded executioners greater flexibility to act when something goes wrong. Many states also have attempted to keep their procedures and drug suppliers secret from inmates and the public. This chapter arguers that these styles of bureaucratic adaptation and cover up, specificity and obfuscation, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as states added some steps to prevent mishaps, they often made other procedures less specific.
The recent history of lethal injection recapitulates the trajectory of capital punishment itself. Throughout United States history, when states encountered problems with their previous methods of execution, they first attempted to address these problems by tinkering with their existing methods. When tinkering failed, they adopted allegedly more humane execution methods. When they ran into difficulty with the new methods, state actors scrambled to hide the death penalty from public view. And they have followed this same playbook in the lethal injection era.