John Oliver broke down the horrific reality of lethal injections on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, delving into the numerous practical and ethical concerns involved in the procedure.
Before the deep-dive, the host outlined some basic reasons to oppose lethal injection: A 2015 Brennan Center for Justice report noted that the death penalty “does not have an effect on bringing down crime”; a 2009 report from the Death Penalty Information Center found that lethal injections are “more expensive than … life in prison”; and a 2014 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that four percent of people sentenced to die are innocent.
But more importantly, Oliver said, the entire act is “wrong.” “Listing reasons why you don’t support the death penalty can feel like listing reasons why you’re not gonna fuck your mom,” he cracked. “Let’s see here: We don’t have much chemistry; she lives 300 miles away and, oh yeah, she’s my mom!”
Lethal injection became popular around four decades ago, he said, because it was viewed as a “humane and painless” alternative to the grisly results of the electric chair. It was “sold as something akin to surgery — a medical procedure in which a doctor helps a person gently go to sleep and then they just don’t wake up.”
But that’s not accurate. Since administering lethal injections would violate physicians’ ethical codes, the procedures are carried out by people without a medical background — and that can lead to some disturbing results.
Though the protocol varies from state to state, the basic process involves three steps: an anesthetic, a paralytic to stop the limbs from moving (done only to prevent those in attendance from having to see flailing limbs) and a drug that initiates cardiac arrest. The third drug, Oliver said, feels like “fire being poured into your veins,” and the second can lead to a terrifying situation where, if the inmate is not completely knocked out, they’re awake but unable to move or breathe. This makes the first step vitally important, he said, as “in theory, it’s supposed to keep you from feeling the other two.”
The most common anesthetic used to be sodium thiopental, but as of 2011, the drug is no longer made in the U.S. or approved by the FDA for import. Some states have tried to skirt that restriction by purchasing it illegally from other countries, but most now use midazolam, a sedative — but not a general anesthetic — that relaxes you but does not prevent pain.
In 2014, Oklahoma became one of the first states to use midazolam for a lethal injection. The results were disastrous: The process took 43 minutes after attempts to insert needles into the inmate’s forearms, neck, foot, groin and buttock; his attorney, there as a witness, said his client kept trying to raise up and at one point said, ‘Something’s wrong.'” It was later discovered that the drugs went into his tissue, not the vein.
“Incredibly, in our desire to find a more humane method, we’ve ended up letting amateurs invent and administer a form of unpredictable torture,” Oliver said. “The hard truth here is there is no perfect way for the government to kill people,” he continued — noting failed attempts to use alternative methods like opioids and cyanide gas.
“At the end of the day, coming up with different ideas to do this is a bit like coming up with positions in which you’d feel least guilty fucking your mom,” he said. “What I’m trying to say here is: If the thing that’s making you comfortable with lethal injection is that it’s humane, it isn’t. Because the fundamental fact to understand about lethal injection is it is a show. It is designed not to minimize the pain of people being executed but to maximize the comfort of those who want to support the death penalty without confronting the reality of it — which is that it’s violent and it’s brutal and it’s never going to be anything other than that.”