Naked City

'Humane' executions resume

On Jan. 21, for the third time in as many weeks, Texas executed someone using a trio of chemicals that, defense attorneys assert, can cause excruciating, yet unobservable, pain.

Kevin Lee Zimmerman was executed last Wednesday for the 1987 murder of Leslie Gilbert Hooks during a drunken knife fight in a Beaumont motel. Zimmerman had received a stay in December, just minutes before his execution was to occur. His appeal claim at that time – that the combination of chemicals used in lethal injection does not ensure that the inmate experiences a humane death, making their use cruel and unusual punishment – still has not been ruled upon by any court. But due to procedural barriers, the stay was lifted, allowing Zimmerman's execution to proceed.

Texas uses three chemicals in the lethal injection process: sodium thiopental (an extremely short-term anesthetic), pancuronium bromide (which paralyzes the diaphragm and other muscles so the inmate is unable to move or speak, even if he's in pain), and potassium chloride (which stops the heart). One major concern with the lethal-injection process is that prison officials do not monitor the inmate to ensure that the anesthesia is working when the pancuronium bromide is administered. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice insists that the inmate suffers no pain. However, according to Dr. Kathy Jones, formerly the director of veterinarian services at Austin's Town Lake Animal Shelter, "Without a physician carefully monitoring vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure, it would be impossible to tell." Veterinarians are often required to put down animals, and the American Veterinary Medical Association banned the use of pancuronium bromide many years ago, because it is considered too cruel. Last spring, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill banning the drug's use for euthanizing dogs and cats. Yet it is still being used to kill people.

On Wednesday, Billy Frank Vickers was scheduled to die for the 1993 murder of Phillip Kinslow during an attempted robbery in Arthur City. Vickers also was scheduled to be executed in December, but a federal court refused to rule before midnight on his challenge to the chemicals used in the lethal injection – and his death warrant thus expired. Vickers has filed another appeal, arguing that there is no legal authority for setting an execution date after a warrant is allowed to expire, and that doing so constitutes both double jeopardy and cruel or unusual punishment.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Death Row, Kevin Lee Zimmerman, Leslie Gilbert Hooks, TDCJ, Kathy Jones, Billy Frank Vickers, Phillip Kinslow, pancuronium bromide

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