Some legal and medical experts say that the standard method of executing people “could lead to paralysis that masks intense distress, leaving a wide-awake inmate unable to speak or cry out as he slowly suffocates,” the New York Times reports. It involves a chemical, pancuronium bromide, which has been among those used in lethal injections since Oklahoma adopted that method in 1977.
As a result of a lawsuit by a Tennessee inmate, advances in human and veterinary medicine, and a study that disclosed the chemicals that many states use in executions, experts have questioned this part of the lethal injection method. Pancuronium bromide paralyzes the skeletal muscles but does not affect the brain or nerves. A person injected with it remains conscious but cannot move or speak.
In Tennessee and about 30 other states, the chemical is used in combination with two others.
A Tennessee judge has found that pancuronium bromide, marketed under the trade name Pavulon, has no legitimate purpose. “The subject gives all the appearances of a serene expiration when actually the subject is feeling and perceiving the excruciatingly painful ordeal of death by lethal injection,” wrote Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle. “The Pavulon gives a false impression of serenity to viewers, making punishment by death more palatable and acceptable to society.”
A more humane alternative to the three-chemical combination, many experts agree, is the method usually used in animal euthanasia: a single dose of sodium pentobarbital.
The challenge to pancuronium bromide was brought by Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman, who is on death row for a 1986 murder. Judge Lyle wrote that the use of the chemical “taps into every citizen’s fear that the government manipulates the setting and gilds the lily.” She ruled that use of the drug did not violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, noting that “there is less than a remote chance that the prisoner will be subjected to unnecessary physical pain or psychological suffering.”