Finding the Right Poison

02/15/2011 03:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As those of us in Illinois anxiously await Governor Quinn's decision on whether or not to sign the bill which passed last month abolishing the death penalty in Illinois -- which I have called on him to do -- another issue in the death penalty looms.

All states that execute do so by what is euphemistically called lethal injection -- which is a polite word for death by poison. Lethal injection is an administration of a three-drug cocktail, which includes sodium thiopental. The sole American manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped producing it, so California imported it from Britain without Food and Drug Administration examination. The agency that did so said that it would not review the drug's efficacy because "reviewing substances imported or used for the purpose of state-authorized lethal injection clearly falls outside of F.D.A.'s explicit public health role." Five years ago, federal Judge Jeremy Fogel, in Morales v. Tilton, ordered the state to halt all executions after he found that the way it administered its lethal injection created too much risk that an inmate would suffer extreme pain. In that opinion he focused on the administration of the lethal three-drug cocktail. "This case presents a very narrow question," he said, but that question cannot be answered unless the judge also asks the state why it believes that one of the drugs, sodium thiopental, is reliable. As the New York Times reported, the judge is touring the prison to see for himself about the efficacy of this drug. He is doing that because he found that, in six of California's 11 executions by injection, the "inmates' breathing may not have ceased as expected" and they may well have been conscious when other drugs were given to paralyze and kill them. This would be terrifying and painful.

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration announced it is withdrawing proposed regulations needed for executions to resume in Maryland, effectively extending a four-year moratorium on the death penalty.

The primary reason is the lack of sodium thiopental, along with concerns about the ability to kill someone in a way that is not cruel and thus in violation of the constitution.

There are those who believe that a little cruelty is just fine, but for those who do, I ask them how much? Is it all right for the person to be paralyzed and in pain and know they are about to die for one minute? Five? Ten? An hour? Where do we draw the line?

The words lethal injection made executions seem better, somehow, to many. But we know now that there isn't a "nice" poison, and we also know that we make mistakes, literally fatal ones -- and it appears cruel ones as well. It is time for abolition.