Tennessee's Lethal Injection Procedure on Trial

The first drug used in lethal injections.

The first drug used in lethal injections.

A trial began last week in Tennessee that challenges whether the drugs used during executions are an unconstitutional form of cruel and unusual punishment.  More than thirty death-row inmates have filed a lawsuit challenging the new three-drug lethal-injection protocol that was adopted in January.  

Tennessee used to use the drug pentobarbital to carry out executions.  However, the drug became extremely difficult to obtain after pharmaceutical companies began restricting its uses for lethal injections.  As a response to the shortage, Tennessee adopted a three-drug protocol in January that uses midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride.  The challenge to the new protocol focuses on the use of the first drug - midazolam.  

Midazolam is the first drug that inmates are given during the execution process.  The drug is supposed to minimize the pain that inmates feel during the execution.  The issue alleged by Tennessee death-row inmates is that the drug does not do the job it is intended to perform.  The inmates point to botched executions and prisoners writhing in pain during their executions as proof the drug does not work.  

This issue has been examined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross.  In Glossip, the Supreme Court found that the use of midazolam did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment because the prisoners had failed to prove its use demonstrated a risk of severe pain.  The Supreme Court also held that prisoners can only challenge their method of execution after providing a known and available alternative method.  In Tennessee, the inmates are suggesting pentobarbital.

How the trial will turn out remains to be seen, but if the Supreme Court ruling is an indication, I anticipate the judge will allow executions to go forward in Tennessee using midazolam.