© 2023 Tennessee Courts System
Lethal injection is used for capital punishment by the Federal Government and 36 States, at least 30 of which (including Kentucky) use the same combination of three drugs: The first, sodium thiopental, induces unconsciousness when given in the specified amounts and thereby ensures that the prisoner does not experience any pain associated with the paralysis and cardiac arrest caused by the second and third drugs, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Among other things, Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol reserves to qualified personnel having at least one year’s professional experience the responsibility for inserting the intravenous (IV) catheters into the prisoner, leaving it to others to mix the drugs and load them into syringes; specifies that the warden and deputy warden will remain in the execution chamber to observe the prisoner and watch for any IV problems while the execution team administers the drugs from another room; and mandates that if, as determined by the warden and deputy, the prisoner is not unconscious within 60 seconds after the sodium thiopental’s delivery, a new dose will be given at a secondary injection site before the second and third drugs are administered.
Petitioners, convicted murderers sentenced to death in Kentucky state court, filed suit asserting that the Commonwealth’s lethal injection protocol violates the Eighth Amendment ’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.” The state trial court held extensive hearings and entered detailed factfindings and conclusions of law, ruling that there was minimal risk of various of petitioners’ claims of improper administration of the protocol, and upholding it as constitutional. The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the protocol does not violate the Eighth Amendment because it does not create a substantial risk of wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain, torture, or lingering death.