The evening of June 7, 2000, should have been another seamless exhibition of modern execution science. A killer named Bennie Demps was scheduled to be the third Floridian to die by lethal injection, that smooth cocktail of sedatives, paralytics and heart-stopping potassium chloride that was adopted to replace the macabre malfunctions of Old Sparky, an electric chair that had served the state since 1924.
Unlike Florida's first two executions by lethal injection, however, there was nothing smooth about Demps' death that evening. Prison personnel struggled behind closed doors for 33 min. to properly insert the long tubes into Demps' veins. When the curtains finally opened, as they are meant to so witnesses can observe the final moments, Demps, strapped to a gurney, addressed the group in a trembling voice. "They butchered me back there. I was in a lot of pain. They cut me in the groin. They cut me in the leg," he said before the drugs were pumped into his veins. "This is not an execution, it is murder."
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear in April the case of the most recent Florida prisoner facing the needle and take a rare look at whether inmates can challenge lethal injection. That case, coupled with the surprise withdrawal last week of two court- appointed anesthesiologists who were going to assist in the execution of California's Michael Morales, has unleashed a wave of new questions about the future of lethal injection, the method of preference in 37 of 38 states with the death penalty. Is this seemingly sanitized death really cruel and unusual punishment? Should medical doctors, those do-no-harm healers bound by the Hippocratic oath, refuse to assist in executions, even though their absence might raise the risk that the procedure will be botched?
In all, five inmates have had their executions put on hold since late January because of doubts surrounding lethal injection. Critics of the method point to 24 cases since 1985 that have gone awry. It took 39 min. of failed attempts to put a tube into Georgia's Jose High before a doctor took over and found a suitable vein. Oklahoma's Scott Dawn Carpenter had drug-induced seizures on the gurney. And even when everything seemed to go right, opponents say, inadequate doses of barbiturates-- the first drug in the cocktail--may have exposed prisoners to excruciating pain, while the paralytic drugs left them unable to cry out or even move as they lay dying.
Supporters of the death penalty say the rash of new objections is not really about the minutiae of dosage or correct catheterization. Rather, it's all part of the continuing effort to chip away at support for capital punishment. Indeed, some anti--death- penalty activists hope that if state courts order closer supervision of lethal injection, instead of remote dosing through tubes that run outside the death chamber, the heavier reality of capital punishment might sink in for witnesses and executioners alike. "Having someone enter the chamber to administer the drugs will force us to decide who will take responsibility for taking a human life," says Mona Cadena of Amnesty International.