Lethal Injection: Definition, History & Procedure

Instructor: Janell Blanco
Many convicts who have been given the death penalty undergo a process called lethal injection. The lesson will also discuss the history of lethal injection and the procedure to completing the type of capital punishment.

Lethal Injection Defined

Do you know what John Wayne Gacy (also known as the Killer Clown), Karla Fay Tucker (a female inmate who converted to Christianity), and Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City Bomber) all have in common?

Each of these criminals listed has died by lethal injection. Lethal injection is a capital punishment that is done by injecting a lethal substance into a person, which causes death. The lethal doses are administered intravenously and they are given in one large dose of a barbiturate or by using three drugs.

We've learned a few of the names of individuals who were killed by lethal injection. It is now time to discuss the history of lethal injection.

History of Lethal Injection

In the late 19th Century, J. Mount Bleyer, M.D. from New York, proposed a plan to inject inmates with a high dose of morphine. Blount claimed this was more humane than hanging to complete the capital punishment. The prisons in New York decided to use the electric chair instead of Bleyer's recommended injection technique.

So when did the states start using lethal injection? You've probably guessed it - when they felt the electric chair was inhumane. It was 1977, and A. Jay Chapman was the Chief Medical Examiner in Oklahoma. He proposed the lethal injection method again but this time using a three-drug injection. Dr. Stanley Deutsch was the chair of the Anesthesiology Department of Oklahoma University Medical School and approved the three drugs. Later that year, Oklahoma legislation passed the lethal injection into law.

Even though Oklahoma was the first state to approve lethal injection, the first lethal injection occurred in Texas in 1982. Since 1977, 33 states have approved lethal injection as a method of capital punishment. As of 2013, there have been 1,184 lethal injections carried out with 11 of those being women, including Karla Fay Tucker, who was the first woman to be punished by lethal injection.

Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman put to death by lethal injection.

We now know a few names of individuals who were punished be lethal injection. We've learned the definition of lethal injection and discussed the history so let's take a look at how lethal injection is completed.


We already know lethal injection is completed by injecting the criminal with lethal doses of drugs, but what are the exact procedures that prisons follow?

There are several states that allow for the use of lethal injection, and each state has their own policy and procedure to administering the lethal injections. While there are variations of the procedure, we will discuss what a typical lethal injection procedure looks like.

The first step is strap the inmate down onto a special gurney. The gurney, pictured below, has straps on the gurney to hold and secure the prisoner's arms, legs, hands, and feet.

Special gurney used for lethal injections.

Once the inmate is secured to the gurney, the lethal injection team will connect him to an EKG machine to monitor the activity of the inmate's heart. The team will also insert two intravenous lines into the inmate's vein. They use two lines because one is the main line and the other is a backup line. The lines then go into separate rooms where the team will monitor the non-lethal saline drip and make sure the line is inserted properly.

At this point, the warden of the prison will ask the lethal injection team to open the curtains and expose the inmate to those who are there to witness the capital punishment. Depending on the type of lethal injection being administered, the team will either inject the three drugs into the inmate, which will put him to sleep.

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