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Lethal injection doubts reach Supreme Court

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There is no doubt that Ralph Baze is a killer, shooting two police officers in the back when they arrived to serve arrest warrants. But there is a doubt that the method the state of Kentucky would use to execute Baze is more humane than he--"cruel and unusual" punishment. The combination of an ultrashort-acting barbiturate with a chemical paralytic and, finally, a heart-stopping drug certainly seems an improvement from the electric chair or other execution methods. But some recent research has shown that, because of failures to administer the appropriate dosage of barbiturates, inmates being executed may feel the burning fire of potassium chloride in their veins--and be too paralyzed by the pancuronium bromide to show it. The Supreme Court will decide in coming months what the legal system thinks of this chemical cocktail. In the interim, it is painfully clear that science is in a bad position to judge: the kinds of analyses and surveys that might reveal the efficacy of the method have been hampered by state secrecy surrounding such executions. As I wrote in the July 2007 issue of the magazine: "Science has shed light on failures in the criminal justice system via DNA evidence and could perform a similar role in evaluating what is intended as a humane method of execution." As for whether execution is humane in and of itself? That is a question for society at large to assess.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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