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The Executioner's Lament

Dr. Jay Chapman, pictured here in 2007, developed the original formula for lethal injections with the intention of making executions in the U.S. more humane.
Ben Margot
Dr. Jay Chapman, pictured here in 2007, developed the original formula for lethal injections with the intention of making executions in the U.S. more humane.

In 1977, death row inmate Gary Mark Gilmore chose to be executed by a firing squad. Gilmore was strapped to a chair at the Utah State Prison, and five officers shot him.

The media circus that ensued prompted a group of lawmakers in nearby Oklahoma to wonder if there might be a better way to handle executions. They approached Dr. Jay Chapman, the state medical examiner at the time, who proposed using three drugs, based loosely on anesthesia procedures at the time: one drug to knock out the inmates, one to relax or paralyze them, and a final drug that would stop their hearts.

The three-drug execution cocktail, which later became known as Chapman's Protocol, has been the preferred method across the U.S. ever since.

But last week's botched execution — in the same state where the technique was developed — has raised questions about execution norms. Although the drugs and the question of whether they work are at the center of the debate, the reality is executions are carried out by people, and people sometimes make mistakes.

Many also struggle with their involvement for years afterward.

Chapman's protocol depends on a number of things that he never foresaw: that in the years to come, doctors and nurses skilled in the art of finding veins would no longer agree to participate; that drug makers in Europe would refuse to allow their drugs to be used; that unregulated pharmacies would have to replicate the drugs, or that prison staff would be responsible for the dosage and the administration.

Chapman supports the death penalty. But he shakes his head at some of the problems.

"In one situation I was made aware of, the needle was inserted into the vein pointing away from the body," he says. "And I have never even known anybody that would imagine doing that sort of thing."

There have been all manner of problems: inmates who wake up midway through — or who cry out in pain.

Former prison officers say putting a dog to sleep is one thing; killing a person is something else entirely.

"This is not normal behavior for right-minded humans to engage in," says Steve Martin, who participated in several executions in Texas in the 1980s. His job was to man the phones in case of a reprieve. He says the whole process is emotionally crippling.

He remembers a couple of times when the execution team couldn't get the needles inserted properly.

"Boy, it just ratcheted up everything," he says.

"People don't realize," he says, "you just killed somebody, and you've been a part of it, and it affects all of us."

Carroll Pickett was the chaplain at 95 executions in Texas through the mid-1990s. He remembers one time when prison staff spent 40 minutes trying to find a vein until the inmate sat up and helped them. "Some of them would go outside and throw up," he says.

Over time, Pickett says, the staff unraveled. "And these were some good, good men. Basically, they all left. Every one of them," he says.

Pickett and Steve Martin both say the memories of every execution haunt them. Martin says he often thinks of one inmate in particular, who worked on an inmate program with the prison director.

"The last words he ever uttered on this earth were thanking the director," he says, crying. "It just struck me that this guy's fall partner was not even given the death sentence, and here we have this person we're executing whose last — at least articulated — thought was to give thanks to the person who was going to execute him."

Corrections officials in Oklahoma say that, at the moment, they anticipate that the courts will postpone an execution set for next week — at least until they're certain what went wrong last week.

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Laura Sullivan
Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.
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