The Origins of Lethal Injection

Today's Supreme Court hearing on Kentucky's death penalty may be a prelude to the end of lethal injection nationally -- or perhaps the end of ...
by | January 7, 2008
 

Lethal Today's Supreme Court hearing on Kentucky's death penalty may be a prelude to the end of lethal injection nationally -- or perhaps the end of the three-drug cocktail common across the country. Even if it is, there's little chance lethal injection's end will be as unlikely as its beginnings.

Oklahoma was the first state to adopt lethal injection, doing so in 1977. A. Jay Chapman, the Oklahoma state medical examiner at the time, is the father of lethal injection, advising legislators on the particulars of what drugs to use.

So an obscure state government official in a smallish state reshaped the history of the death penalty in the United States. But the story is stranger than that. Here's what Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor and lethal injection expert, recounts (large PDF):

From the start, Chapman was upfront about his glaring lack of expertise. Indeed, when initially contacted, his "first response was that [he] was an expert in dead bodies but not an expert in getting them that way."

What happened after Oklahoma approved its law? According to Slate:

Even defenders of the current protocol concede it was simply copied from state to state, each cheerfully adopting the 1977 version cooked up by Dr. Jay Chapman...

Today, every state with a death penalty uses lethal injection, except one, Nebraska. The standard cocktail of drugs is based on Chapman's original recommendations. Chapman is still alive today and still supports the death penalty, but he is open to changing the method. 

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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