Why Do They Use Sterile Needles for Lethal Injections?

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“Lethal injection” isn’t a marketing term or a cute nickname. The intent of the injection is to execute someone. So why bother with the alcohol swab and sterile needle? Are they really worried about the condemned getting an infection?

Well, yes.

We’ve all seen movies where someone is about to be executed, and then, at the last possible second, the governor calls and either delays or commutes the sentence. Things like that happen in real life, too.

Take the case of James Autry. One day in October 1983, the condemned murderer was strapped to a gurney in a Texas prison with a needle in his arm, waiting to be executed. Shortly before he was scheduled to die, he received a stay of execution. He was returned to his cell, the day went on as normal, and Autry was executed the following March.

Had the needle and Autry’s arm not been sterilized, he could have gotten an infection and died. The prison may have been open to a wrongful death lawsuit. Sure, he was supposed to die anyway, but he was sentenced to death by lethal injection, not dirty equipment.

Or, let’s say a condemned prisoner receives a stay of execution because the real killer has miraculously been found. If you don’t follow proper procedure and the now-cleared man gets sick or dies on you, you’ve really got a problem on your hands.

In addition to the safety of the prisoner, there’s also the safety of the prison staff to consider. If the condemned struggles while the needle is being inserted, the executioner risks being stuck and high risk of infected wounds is not something that really appeals to people when they’re weighing career options.

Finally, there’s a fringe benefit to swabbing the arm. Alcohol causes veins below the swabbed skin to swell stand out a little better and makes the skin more sensitive to touch, making a good vein easier to find and stick.

See Also: U.K. To Halt Shipments of Execution Drug to U.S. (WSJ)

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November 30, 2010 - 6:15pm
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