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Latest horror more reason to end executions

Published July 31. 2014 4:00AM

Connecticut should not take a chance at replaying the horror show seen recently in other state. It is time to fully repeal the death penalty in favor of life-time imprisonment. In an effort to have it both ways, lawmakers repealed capital punishment going forward, but left it in place for murders committed before April 25, 2012, the day they abolished the death penalty.

If any of these men still on death row exhausts his appeals or decides to die voluntarily, as the last recipient of the death penalty did, Connecticut will have to take a guess on the amount of certain lethal drugs it will be forced to use. A bad guess can result in a long and agonizing death, as it did most recently in Arizona.

Death penalty states have been playing a game of drug dosage roulette since domestic and foreign drug manufacturers, including all 28 members of the European Union, refused to sell drugs they manufacture for healing to be used in taking lives. As a result, states have had to find substitutes that haven't been adequately tested because they can only be tested on living persons being executed.

In recent executions, widely different dosages of the drug midazolam have been used. The New York Times reports Arizona used 50 milligrams on July 23 when an hour and 57 minutes passed until the injection recipient could be pronounced dead; Oklahoma's dosage of choice was 100 milligrams in taking 43 minutes to kill its victim. Other states have tried as many as 500 milligrams and as few as 10.

Would anyone deny that an execution that drags on for two hours - or one with no certainty as to how long the process will take - is the type of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution?

We don't know who's been injecting these drugs because the states, including Connecticut, traditionally hide the executioner's identity out of fear and shame, but since 2010, it probably wasn't an anesthesiologist. That year, the American Board of Anesthesiologists announced it would seize the credentials of any professional who takes part in an execution, again on the grounds that their skills are designed for healing, not killing.

Witnesses reported the Arizona murderer struggled for nearly two hours, gasping, as if for air, more than 600 times before he died. A spokesman for the state attorney general claimed he was snoring. Despite the feeble attempt at an official explanation, the attorney general called a halt to executions in the state, as did other states after earlier botched executions.

This newspaper has long advocated the abolition of the death penalty on the grounds state-sponsored executions disproportionately target minorities, has no deterrent value, cannot be undone if there's a mistake and is a barbaric act that lowers the state to the level of the killer. Consider the nations that led the rest of the world in state-sponsored killings in 2012, the last year figures are available. Iran was first, followed by Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States.

After the 43-minute execution in June, this newspaper said the state should have the courage and consistency to outlaw government sanctioned killing in all instances, including those awaiting execution. Now, we have a new record in the barbaric state killing stakes, the horrible hour and 57 minutes.

Connecticut's 12 were grandfathered for execution, as it were, under a misdirected but understandable sympathy for the families of their victims, most notably Dr. William Petit, who aggressively sought death for the two who brutally murdered his wife and daughters in an invasion of their Cheshire home. More skeptically, we suspect there was some political calculation in not lifting the death penalty in the Cheshire case.

However in June, Michael Lawlor, the state's undersecretary for criminal justice policy, revealed that the state has none of the three drugs required by state law to be used in executions. Asked then what the state would do if one of the 12, like Michael Ross in 2005, asked to be executed, Mr. Lawlor admitted he didn't know.

And let's not forget that lethal injection became the more humane alternative for state-sanctioned murder after public embarrassment and shame over earlier executions via the electric chair, the gas chamber, hanging by the neck and the firing squad. What's left, burning at the stake?

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