1990: Charles Coleman, the first lethal injection in Oklahoma

1 comment September 10th, 2015 Headsman

Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.

Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.

And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.

Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!

Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.

Most of all it was sterile for the viewers, who had occasionally been subjected under the other processes to nauseating botches: men who were supposed to be dying instantly instead thrashing wildly away, catching fire, gushing blood, or requiring jolt after jolt to finish off. The electric chair surely owes its iconic cultural position in part to its reputation for spectacular failures.

When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.

“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”

As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.

Data via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*

It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.

Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”

Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?

Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.

“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”

Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.

And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.

Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.

So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.

Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”

It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.

* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.

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1952: Chester Gregg

2 comments July 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1952, 58-year-old Chester Gregg nonchalantly died in Ohio’s electric chair for killing his wife the previous year.

Gregg shotgunned Alma Colliday Gregg, his estranged spouse and the head of the “lonely hearts” club through which the pair oiginally met, in her Kenton apartment after she filed for divorce.

As that killing made him a two-timer — he’d been paroled from a 1927 murder rap in Kentucky; the daughter of that victim petitioned unsuccessfully to attend Gregg’s execution — his clemency prospects were remote.

Although he’s of no known relationship to the namesake of the landmark Gregg decision returning death penalty to the U.S. in 1976, Chester has managed to find his way into the news of late.

Apparently, he was acquainted with an Ohio child named Jay Chapman (newspaper reports have termed Gregg Chapman’s “childhood friend”, but Chapman would only have been about 13 at this time: we intend no derogation to intergenerational friendship in saying that this is not the connotation of “childhood friend”). And Chapman would go on, as Oklahoma’s medical examiner in the 1970s, to play a subtle but important role in the modern death penalty: he invented the “traditional” lethal injection three-drug cocktail.

Dr. Chapman, who at least has the comfort of not having the lethal needle named after him a la Joseph Guillotin, knocked out the standard sodium thiopental-pancuronium bromide-potassium chloride sequence at the request of legislators looking for a less unpleasant alternative to that ubiquitous 20th century contraption, the electric chair. (That’s also how Gregg was put to death.)

But apparently, Chapman assumed that trained medical personnel who knew how to administer IVs and measure drugs would be conducting the procedure.

In fact, as executions “medicalized”, professional medical associations like the AMA barred members from participating as a breach of professional ethics. More recently, supply interruptions for lethal drugs have made a mess of the entire process. The upshot has been some high-profile botches — including Ohio itself outright failing in a recent lethal injection attempt — necessitating a 2007-2008 U.S. execution moratorium to sort out legal challenges to the needle.

It’s a far cry from Chapman’s vision of a litigation-proof method: “We felt that by going with this type of regimen, no one could suggest that it was cruel and unusual because people undergo this very protocol every day for anesthetic for surgery world-round,” he said in 2009.

The doctor’s own interest in the subject was merely instrumental: fewer appeals avenues mean more executions. “I’m an eye for an eye person,” Chapman told the London Guardian.* “The lethal injection is too easy for some of them.”

For that reason, Chapman is quite alright with the switch his home state an others have recently made to conducting lethal injections with only a single massive overdose of a single drug, either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital. Whatever gets the case out of courts, and onto the gurney.

As for the ghost of Chester Gregg, he really doesn’t enter the picture either way.

“It’s a totally separate thing,” Chapman said of his executed former neighbor. “It’s just an experience I had along the way.”

* There are some May 2010 photos of Chapman in the Guardian magazine archive.

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