Regardless of whether the Supreme Court rightly upheld Oklahoma’s execution protocol in Glossip, Oklahoma officials had inadequate reason to choose midazolam as the anesthetizing agent in its procedure. Their decision is one example illustrating Seema Shah’s point that death penalty states are engaged in “poorly designed experimentation that is not based on evidence.” Shah argues that “an important factor” causing the high rate of botched executions is that lethal injection reform is a type of human subjects research that is going unregulated. Shah argues that research requirements, such as informed consent and IRB review, are necessary to render the research permissible.
Part I of this essay grants Shah’s conclusion that death penalty states are engaged in human subjects research. However, it argues that if protocol reform amounts to research, it is unethical for lacking social value, even if capital punishment is justified. The purpose of this “research” is to make executions palatable to the public and, thereby, maintain support for the death penalty. (Its purpose is not to find a painless means of killing; we already have that knowledge). However, the state disrespects its citizens by attempting to influence public opinion by a means that has nothing to do with reasons to support its policies.
Part II provides reasons to doubt that the law and ethics of research should govern protocol reform. Contrary to Shah’s hopes, the application of the law and ethics of research to executions will not help ensure less suffering for the condemned. Finally, Part III argues that describing lethal injection reform as human subjects research fails to add moral or legal reasons to condemn the way in which states have conducted recent executions. The basic problem is not that protocols represent “poorly designed experimentation,” but rather that they are poorly designed.
Paul Litton, On the Argument that Execution Protocol Reform is Biomedical Research, 90 Wash. L. Rev. Online 87 (2015)