16 December 2006

Killing people

Dr Grumble does not like killing. For Dr Grumble the worst sort of killing is judicial execution. What could be more premeditated than that? The founding fathers of that renegade group in the New World banned cruel and unusual punishment. Dr Grumble wonders what they had in mind. Because nothing seems to Dr Grumble to be more cruel and unusual than what goes on across the pond. Waiting for years to be executed with imminent bookings for the execution chamber being punctuated by court intervention seems pretty cruel to Dr Grumble. Not that he would favour a speedier dispatch either.

A particularly nasty part of the execution process has been the medicalisation of the procedure. This seems to have been devised more to sanitise and help sanction the process than to make the procedure better for the victim. A witness to the first such execution commented, "With the medical paraphernalia - intravenous tubes, a cot on wheels, and a curtain for privacy the well lighted cubicle might have been a hospital room." Exactly what was intended, thinks Dr Grumble. It doesn't seem to bother that many Americans. Even some American doctors would be happy to help out at executions. Odd. There are third world countries that have not executed anybody for decades.

Dr Grumble has not been able to bring himself to study the latest botched execution in Florida but, inevitably, he has heard accounts on the radio. To understand what may have happened we need to know what drugs they use in this process. Dr Grumble understands these to be thiopentone, pancuronium and potassium chloride. Pancuronium is, essentially, arrow poison. It paralyses muscles. You remain fully conscious - but not for long because you can't breathe. Not too pleasant really. That's why they give thiopentone, a rapidly acting barbiturate. But it's effect doesn't last long. That's why they give the potassium. It stops the heart. But these agents are all supposed to go in intravenously. If they don't death could be prolonged and painful. Dr Grumble thinks that in the latest botch up the executioners failed to obtain proper IV access. As a result the victim would have been paralysed by the pancuronium - but rather slowly and incompletely. The Pentothal would not have worked too well either so consciousness would have been maintained. And the potassium injected outside the vein would have caused severe pain to the partly paralysed victim. How civilised societies can do this sort of thing Dr Grumble has no idea.

Where Dr Grumble trained they used to use bodies from executions for dissection. Even in those days executions were not reliable. But for Ann Green there was a happy outcome.


Trevor Gay said...

When we are ‘put in the spotlight’ and asked to make a judgment about capital punishment we have to call on some faith or fundamental belief. I am a Christian and cannot support capital punishment.

If - God forbid - one of my three children was murdered my faith would be seriously tested. I hope I would feel the same in a ‘real’ and very personal situation.

It just feels like there is something very primitive about doctors ‘killing’ people. In future centuries I wonder if we may be seen as ‘primitive’ in our beliefs about this.

It is one of those questions that can only have a very personal response.

Dr Grumble said...

You can call on the same fundamental faith and come to the opposite conclusion. Isn't that the case in the bible belt?

Anonymous said...

I had a friend, a Psychologist, who volunteered some time at the local prison (in America). At that time, many years ago, capital punishment included electrocution which this prison practiced. The executioners, to avoid public persecution, wore black hoods and no one knew their identities. My friend innocently stumbled into the prison's employee break room one day where the three executioners were gathered. Sans masks. He recognized them. They were a father and his two sons. Turns out, they did the execution work part-time. Their full time job in town? Electricians. True story.

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