Wednesday, March 21 , 2018, 5:44 pm | Rain Fog/Mist 58º


Harris Sherline: Concerns About Execution Drug Are Another Ploy

The U.S. company that makes the powerful anesthetic that is most commonly used in executions recently announced it would no longer produce the product.

Not surprisingly, but somewhat baffling to me, is why this should be a matter of any concern to those states that have been using this product to execute killers.

Dating back to 1791, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees protection against “cruel and unusual” punishment and further provides “that excessive bail ought not be required, nor excessive fines imposed ...” (, Chapter 9).

Since then, the death penalty in the United States has evolved from a form of punishment that was not initially considered “cruel and unusual” to the point where it is now viewed as such by many people. In the United States, the manner of execution has moved from hanging and the firing squad to the electric chair, the gas chamber and, ultimately, in many states, to lethal injection.

The U.S. public still favors the death penalty 65 percent to 30 percent, according to an October 2009 Gallup poll, but that is down from 80 percent that supported capital punishment in 1994. Since capital punishment was reinstated some 30 years ago, nearly 900 of the 1,056 executions carried out through 2006 were by lethal injection. It is the primary form of execution or an option in 35 of the 36 states that still have capital punishment (Nebraska uses the electric chair).

A USA Today report noted, “A federal judge ruled ... that Tennessee’s new lethal injection procedures are cruel and unusual punishment, interrupting plans to execute a killer ...” who beat an elderly woman to death during a burglary in 1983. “The protocol ‘presents a substantial risk of unnecessary pain’ and violates death row ... inmate’s constitutional protections ... The new protocol, released in April, does not ensure that inmates are properly anesthetized before the lethal injection is administered ... which could ‘result in a terrifying, excruciating death.’”

The oft-quoted adage, “Justice delayed is justice denied” (William E. Gladstone, British statesman and prime minister, 1868-1894), now pretty much applies to our entire system of capital punishment — with death row inmates languishing in prisons for years on end while the legal process takes its ponderous course — in spite of the fact that the public continues to favor the death penalty by a margin of better than 2-to-1.

Wikipedia notes, “Many countries have abolished the death penalty, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, almost all of Europe and much of Latin America ... 111 countries either do not have or do not use the death penalty. Many other states retain it, especially in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean and the United States. ... In most countries that have capital punishment, it is used to punish only murder and/or for war-related crimes. In some countries, like the People’s Republic of China, even nonviolent crimes, like drug and business-related crimes, are punished with capital punishment.”

However, in my view, the arguments for and against capital punishment notwithstanding, splitting hairs about whether the condemned should or do suffer any pain whatsoever is irrational. It’s a position that I believe is taken for purely tactical reasons — that is, merely to make the death penalty unenforceable by defining it as “cruel and unusual.”

Dead is dead, whether by a bullet to the back of the head, the guillotine or lethal injection. No one can say for certain just how much pain or suffering may be experienced at the moment of death, and I suspect that most if not all of the 65 percent of Americans who favor capital punishment do not particularly care how it is carried out. Arguing about which method is least painful seems nonsensical to me, especially when the individual involved is someone like Ted Bundy, the BTK killer, Jeffrey Dahmer or any of the many other killers who murder innocent people without giving any thought to the pain and suffering they caused in the process.

In the final analysis, belief in capital punishment seems to be more an article of faith than it is a matter of facts. Both sides give credence to the specific arguments that support their respective views and discount opinions to the contrary. A leading news journalist often says he is against capital punishment but that those who are convicted of “capital crimes” should be sentenced to life in prison at hard labor, as in breaking rocks.

That works for me.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog,

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >