Edward L. Harper, the last man to be executed in Kentucky, in 1999, took 12 minutes to die. Observers said he looked tranquil as an executioner pumped a series of three chemicals into him – a barbiturate to make him unconscious, then a paralyzing agent, and then a chemical used in road salt, to stop his heart. But lawyers for two other condemned Kentucky inmates say that information from Harper’s post-mortem exam indicate that Harper was tortured to death. They say that the drug meant to make him unconscious did not work, meaning the other two drugs subjected him to suffocation and searing pain while he was wide awake but unable to move or speak. In a suit filed in Circuit Court here in August, they have asked a judge to halt their clients’ executions as cruel and unusual punishment.
Opponents of the death penalty have filed challenges to the three-chemical combination used in Kentucky and about 30 other states in recent years. But those cases were based on speculation about the drugs’ effects, and judges have dismissed many of them on procedural grounds or because medical experts assured them that the first drug was certain to produce unconsciousness and perhaps be lethal itself. The information in the Harper autopsy and in similar data from two other states radically changes the debate over the humanity of the standard lethal injection chemicals, lawyers for the Kentucky inmates say. What had before been only a theoretical concern, they contend, turns out to be provable fact.