The execution process often causes a condition called called pulmonary edema, which can induce the feeling of suffocation or drowning, reports NPR. Medical experts have presented evidence of the condition to federal courts in Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Ohio. It is at the forefront of constitutional challenges to the death penalty. An NPR review of of more than 200 autopsies obtained through public records requests showed signs of pulmonary edema in 84 percent of cases. Doctors believe that many inmates are not being properly anesthetized and are therefore feeling the suffocating and drowning sensation brought on by pulmonary edema. The findings come at a time when death penalty states are facing scrutiny over drug shortages, untrained execution personnel and a series of high-profile botched executions.
“These autopsy reports show definitively without question that these inmates are developing pulmonary edema,” says Allen Bohnert, a federal public defender who represents Ohio inmates with scheduled executions. “That evidence continues to build and continues to get better every time another execution happens, unfortunately.” After Ohio inmate Robert Van Hook wheezed and gasped for air as he was executed on July 18, 2018, with a three-drug cocktail beginning with midazolam. An expert testified that inmates executed with the drug experienced “severe respiratory distress with associated sensations of drowning, asphyxiation, panic and terror.” A federal judge said that reached the Supreme Court’s standard for cruel and unusual punishment, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine delayed planned executions and instructed the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections to reassess the state’s lethal injection protocol.