Tennessee’s Protocols Still A Big Problem

Yesterday, Judge Aleta Trauger ruled that Tennessee cannot execute E.J. Harbison because the state’s continued use of the three drug cocktail in the lethal injection protocol would present a substantial risk of suffering, a violation of the constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” In her ruling, Judge Trauger stated that if the three drugs are not administered with proper anesthesia, the result could be a “terrifying, excruciating death.”

The state’s 90 day moratorium earlier this year in order to revise the protocols, unfortunately was not nearly enough time to truly address all the flaws, particularly with the three drug cocktail. In an article from the Nashville Scene, Jeff Woods writes about the state’s own witness, Dr. Mark Dershwitz of the University of Massachusetts, in his testimony before Judge Trauger in which he states that there was “something amiss” if an execution takes more than nine minutes. On May 9, only nine days after the new protocols were enacted, Philip Workman was executed, taking 17 minutes to die. Concerning Workman’s execution, Dershwitz states, “it was remarkable to me when I read about it.”

And, the state has yet to test the fluid samples from Workman’s body to show whether he was properly sedated before the searing potassium chloride was injected to stop his heart. The story goes on to suggest that in his 2000 execution, Robert Glen Coe didn’t receive enough barbiturate which would have meant that he was silently suffocating and in intense pain.

The fact that we, in United State of America, a largely Christian nation, in the year 2007 are still having discussions about how best to kill people astounds me. All the time, energy, and resources which are devoted to finding ways to kill people–people who would otherwise live out their lives in prison–could, instead, be used to attempt to prevent such heinous crimes from happening in the first place. Why do we seem much more ready and willing to spend millions, if not billions, of dollars to kill someone after a violent tragedy has already occurred rather than to spend the money on an individual who may be at risk for violence, actually preventing the crime in the first place? How different would our criminal justice system look if all these resources were spent on health care (particularly mental health care), early childhood programs, increased social services, education, job training, and substance abuse programs. Imagine it.

Nonetheless, I am grateful that Judge Trauger took a long, hard look at the facts concerning lethal injection and made a fair ruling. Now, of course, the state may decide to appeal her decision to the 6th Circuit. We will just wait and see. In the meantime, E.J. Harbison must wait as well.

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