Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Lethal Injection on Trial

Already on hold in 12 states, the death penalty faces further attacks in courts and legislatures this year

by Kavan Peterson

State of the States

Since capital punishment was reinstated three decades ago, nearly 900 of more than 1,055 U.S. executions have been carried out by lethal injection. But what was seen as a more humane alternative to the gas chamber, electric chair, firing squad or gallows now faces serious challenges.

The execution in Ohio last May of double-murderer Joseph Clark is a stark example of why America is taking a harder look at lethal injection.

Although Ohio had carried out 20 lethal injections without incident, prison officials encountered serious problems in executing Clark, a long-time intravenous drug user convicted of killing a service station attendant and a convenience store clerk. Reporters who witnessed the execution said Clark, 57, raised his head off the gurney and said repeatedly, “It don’t work. It don’t work.” Prison officials closed the viewing curtain as they struggled to find a vein to inject the deadly chemicals. The procedure took almost 90 minutes.

Sparring over lethal injection will resume in courts and legislatures this year as authorities grapple with tough questions about how much pain the condemned feel as they die and what role, if any, medical professionals should play in executions.

The battle over lethal injection is the latest strand in a long-running debate over the ultimate punishment. The United States is among a handful of industrialized countries that sanction capital punishment. China, a totalitarian state, remains the leader, executing thousands of prisoners annually.

Of the more than 3,300 prisoners on death row in the United States, 53 were executed in 2006, the fewest number since 1996, when 45 prisoners were put to death. Texas leads the nation with nearly 380 executions since 1976 and 24 executions in 2006.


Recent court rulings have narrowed the grounds for capital punishment, and public support generally has slipped. The U.S. public still favors the death penalty by a 65 percent-to-30 percent margin, according to USA Today/Gallup polls over the last three years, but that is down from 80 percent that supported capital punishment in 1994.

In the most recent test of public sentiment, Wisconsin voters in November approved a non-binding ballot measure calling for restoration of the death penalty in cases where DNA evidence proves multiple counts of first-degree murder. The result shattered Wisconsin tradition. The Badger State, currently one of a dozen states without the death penalty, last executed criminals in the 1850s. But any attempt by the Legislature to reinstate the death penalty likely would be vetoed by Gov. Jim Doyle (D).

The death penalty effectively was put on hold in 12 states last year – nine because of questions over lethal injection.

Just two weeks before leaving office on Jan. 2, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) suspended all executions until at least March 1 while a state commission reviews the state’s lethal injection process. Bush formed the commission after the Dec. 13 execution of Angel Diaz, 55, took 34 minutes – twice the normal time – and required a second dose of lethal drugs because the first needle was improperly inserted. In South Dakota, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) last August gave a temporary reprieve to Elijah Page, 24, so the state could update its lethal injection procedure to include the “most modern and efficient” methods. When rescheduled, Paige’s execution would be the state’s first in 59 years.

Read the full report at

The preceding article was excerpted from State of the States 2007,’s annual report on significant state policy developments and trends. Order a digital copy of this 48-page publication.

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