STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have new evidence today of the pain of lethal injection. This is a process the federal government plans to use to execute two inmates at a prison in Terre Haute, Ind., this week. Lethal injection is supposed to be a quick and painless death. Our colleagues at All Things Considered asked if it really is. Noah Caldwell reported this story with ATC host Ailsa Chang. Hey there.
NOAH CALDWELL, BYLINE: Hi there.
INSKEEP: What were you looking for?
CALDWELL: So we've been looking at the autopsies of inmates executed by execution, specifically executed by lethal injections, specifically what's happening to the lungs. And I was first tipped off that something might be going wrong with the lungs a few years ago by a doctor in Atlanta named Joel Zivot, who'd been reviewing some autopsies of inmates executed in Georgia. Let's take a listen.
JOEL ZIVOT: I saw that instead of what I thought would be pristine findings, instantaneous death, I began to see a picture that was more consistent with a slower death, a death associated with suffering.
CALDWELL: What he was seeing was a severe form of something called pulmonary edema, and this is when lungs rapidly fill with fluid, which can make you feel like you're drowning or suffocating. And it's happening here because the massive dose of drugs that inmates receive is damaging the inside of the lungs.
INSKEEP: All of which is morally important to many people because we'd like to think, as a society, we're not torturing people, that they're being painlessly put to death, and now there's this evidence of something else. Where did that evidence take you?
CALDWELL: Yeah, so Doctor Zivot had a handful of autopsies, but we wanted to see how prevalent this is across the board. So we filed public records requests. We got more than 300 autopsies of inmates killed by lethal injection from nine states, spanning decades. Not all of them had data about the lungs, but in the more than 200 that did, we found pulmonary edema in 84% of the cases.
CALDWELL: Now lawyers are also bringing autopsies to federal courts around the country, claiming that the pain of pulmonary edema amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. And they say this explains why we've seen some inmates in recent years gasping for air and choking as they're being executed.
INSKEEP: Is it clear how much the inmates are feeling in those last moments of their lives?
CALDWELL: Right. So this is a big question that the courts are tackling right now. Many doctors who are testifying have raised serious concerns about the drugs states are using to try to anesthetize inmates. One drug that's been used in dozens of executions in recent years isn't actually an anesthetic, and it can't block pain. It's often used in hospitals to calm patients down before surgery. Another common drug that states use is an anesthetic, but it's not used in a way that guarantees the inmate will remain fully under for the duration of their execution.
So considering issues with both of these drugs, doctors we spoke to say it's very likely many of these inmates could feel those suffocating effects of their lungs filling with fluid.
INSKEEP: OK, so they could feel the effects. What arguments are states making to defend lethal injection?
CALDWELL: Right. So the pushback we've encountered in our reporting, of course, is these inmates have been sentenced to death. Many deaths do involve pain. And, of course, many of the family members of the victims of these violent crimes do want justice to be done, regardless of how painful the execution will be. We went to Ohio to speak with a man named Norman Stout. He's 90 years old. And his wife was murdered 36 years ago.
NORMAN STOUT: It is only the bleeding hearts and the half-wits that are involved in this discussion. Cruel and unusual punishment is laying out there in the cemetery.
CALDWELL: And I should point out that despite all the recent problems with lethal injection, polling does show that the majority of Americans still support the death penalty. And at the end of the day, of course, it's up to the courts to decide whether or not lethal injection amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. But having autopsy evidence to consider during that process gives a much clearer picture of what lethal injection is actually doing to the human body.
INSKEEP: Noah, thanks for the evidence. Really appreciate it.
CALDWELL: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Noah Caldwell, who reported out this story with our colleague Ailsa Chang.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOY WANTS ETERNITY'S "DEATH IS A DOOR THAT OPENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.