Whatever your opinion on the death penalty is, there is no doubt that the three mishandled executions this past year (most recently this week in Arizona) were an unpleasant reminder of the complex nature of the law itself. Legal Scholar Austin Sarat, author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, published by Stanford University Press, discussed the subject on NPR's Morning Edition with Steve Inskeep. Sarat provided historical context and an unbiased explanation of the current state of the death penalty in America.
The author also mentioned that within the prison system, the personnel administering the lethal injections are not medically trained. According to the American Medical Association's Code of Medical Ethics, physicians are forbidden to participate actively in capital punishment where "...where the method of execution is lethal injection, the following actions by the physician would also constitute physician participation in execution: selecting injection sites; starting intravenous lines as a port for a lethal injection device; prescribing, preparing, administering, or supervising injection drugs or their doses or types; inspecting, testing, or maintaining lethal injection devices; and consulting with or supervising lethal injection personnel."
The United States has always tried to make methods of the death penalty compatible with the 8th Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Sarat traces the methods implemented throughout history and how they have changed. His book is "...a history of botched, mismanaged, and painful executions in the U.S. from 1890–2010. Using new research, Sarat traces the evolution of methods of execution that were employed during this time, and were meant to improve on the methods that went before, from hanging or firing squad to electrocution to gas and lethal injection."