Death Row Group Name: The Carbon Copies # 12


Group No.:


Group Name:


News URL:


Richard Willing

News Paper:


Area Key Word:

Anesthetic, Lethal Injection, Execution, Capital Punishment

Chemistry Key Word:

Lethal Chemicals: Sodium thiopental, Pancuronium bromide, Potassium Chloride, Barbiturates

Imagine being an inmate on death row, minutes away from being executed. What is on your mind? A well educated chemist might ask, “Will the sodium thiopental disrupt the activity of my nervous system with enough efficiency to fall asleep quickly and feel no pain?” The lay-inmate such as Nelson would probably ask, “Will it hurt?” The issue of pain from lethal injections has been controversial since it was first performed in the U.S. in 1982. Testing began earlier in other countries. In addition to these facts check out the following websites for more history and details about the process.

The apparent answer to the introductory question is no. Many feel the drugs that are used are painless. There are many supporters of the death penalty, with over 70% of Americans in favor of the punishment. However, some argue that any execution process is extremely painful. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with many other organizations, oppose lethal injections. Check out the Amnesty International webpage for arguments against capital punishment. Dr James Welsh, author of a report on the Amnesty International website said, “In practice, there have been a number of cases in which [lethal injection] has failed to bring about the quick, painless death of the condemned extolled by its proponents.” The consistent argument of those opposed is that the injection of drugs could be flawed, resulting in pain and suffering.

What are these drugs? Lethal injections involve the administering of three drugs, all which have a vital role in the process. First in the killer cocktail and the most highly debated is sodium thiopental, also known as Pentothal. As mentioned above Pentothal is a sedative, which reacts with and blocks receptors in the nervous system, causing the individual to fall unconscious. Alone Pentothal is not lethal; in fact it has many other uses including use as mild anesthetic and commercial sleeping pills. Next, pancuronium bromide (Pavulon) paralyzes muscles and shuts down breathing. Lastly, potassium chloride is injected to stop the heart. Pavulon and potassium chloride individually are deadly; they are used together to ensure that the process is carried out flawlessly. Articles in the British Medical Journal, and The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty discusses the combination of drugs and their effects to the body in further detail.

Pentothal and Pavulon are both organic based drugs. Pentothal is an ultra short-acting barbiturate, derived from barbituric acid, the formation of pentothal is as below. Barbiturates are defined as any derivative of barbituric acid that can be used as a sedative or depressant to the central nervous system. More organic chemical information on barbiturates can be found in Chapter 21 Section 8 of Carey’s Organic Chemistry Fifth Edition.

Journal of Organic Chemistry Source:
Barry M. Troust and Gretchen M. Schroeder J. Org. Chem. 2000, 65, 1569-1573.

Question 1:

Sodium thiopental is classified as a barbiturate; What are the specefic characteristics of the barbiturate group?
(Identification of Components and Relationships (ICR))

Answer 1:

Barbiturates are a group of organic molecules derived from Barbituric acid; all members of the Barbiturate family can be used as sedatives. All barbiturates inhibit the functions of the central nervous system. For more information on the structure of Barbiturates check out the work of Jack DeRuiter

Question 2:

Chemical processes as with most things are not always perfect, be it from human error or from flaws in the reaction things can go wrong when administering lethal injections. What are some of the things that can go wrong with the chemistry envolved?
(Seeking Clarification (SCL))

Answer 2:

If the three drugs envolved are mixed before entering the convicts body, a white precipitate will form, causing blockage of the I.V. If the I.V. is blocked the effects of the Sodium Thiopental could easily wear off, and the convict could undergo great deals of pain before dying.

Question 3:

Check out this article from,particularly the map showing state by state execution methods. Does this map prove lethal injection is the prefered method of execution in the U.S., and if so why do you think it is?
(Reasoning Using Quantitative Data (RQD))

Answer 3:

Yes, It is clearly shown that lethal injection is the prefered method of execution. Out of the 40 states that currently use capital punishment, 38 have lethal injection as their primary method. This is because lethal injection has been proved to be a much quicker, and more humane killer than its alternatives.

Question 4:

Sodium thiopental is used as the first drug in the trio of drugs in the lethal injection process. If Sodium thiopental was used during surgery, as it commonly is, exclusively, what would be the result of this, and why is it not used that way?
(Flexibility and Adaptability of Scientific Reasoning (FAR))

Answer 4:

Sodium thiopental quickly wears off, and sometimes starts to wear off as soon as it starts working. It is used the majority of the time simply to make the patient unconscious so that follow up anesthetics can be administered with less pain. If Sodium thiopental was used exclusively the patient may remain conscious of their surroundings and possibly be in excruciating pain.

Question 5:

Given the information just presented, and the particular chemicals used, do you think lethal injection really is a “painless” process?
(Reasoning about Philosophical, Societal, and Political Implications (PSP))

Answer 5:

This answer will vary from person to person depending on their moral standpoint. Those who oppose lethal injections might argue that pentothal is not a strong enough sedative; its effects wear off to quickly. This lack of sedation will leave the inmate helpless to stop the pain of dying by paralysis and heart failure. Also, opposition might say that even if the process is physically painless, the mental pain caused by the ordeal is far worse. The inmate will be caused much stress and anxiety before life functions are terminated, and his or her family will suffer much grief do to the loss of a loved one. On the other hand, those who support lethal injections could argue that the drugs used are the best available, and that there is no pain caused. Supporters could also argue the point of “who cares?” Even if the Pentothal is not effective, and the inmates can feel pain as they die, does it matter? To get to where they are at they certainly did not show their victims the same compassion so why should we worry so much about the way they die. This is not an issue that will be put to rest anytime soon. Unless we figure out a way to communicate with the dead, it is nearly impossible to determine whether the chemical process is painless or not. Even if the effectiveness of sodium thiopental can be determined, the matter will still not be put to rest. There will always be the moral crusaders who oppose capital punishment no matter the method. There will always be the people who feel no compassion for the inmate, and feel the only way justice can be reached is with the “eye for an eye” law. There will always be the fence straddlers who say execution might me good on rare circumstances if the method is humane, and the crime committed warrants such actions. To determine whether the process is “painless” depends on the beliefs of the reader.



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