It has been ten years since Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province in southwest China, became the first Chinese city to attempt executions via lethal injection in 1997. On December 17, a reporter from The Beijing News interviewed Liu Renwen, a death penalty expert, about lethal injection procedures in China during the past ten years. Liu stated that lethal injections should replace execution by shooting in China.
Brainwaves go down to zero in a few seconds after injecting
The Beijing News: It has been ten years since China first adopted lethal injections; is this new method becoming more popular?
Liu: Most of the inmates on death row in China are executed by shooting, but lethal injections have become more popular in some provincial capital cites. This trend will spread from larger, centrally located cites to smaller, more remote areas, from developed to the underdeveloped regions.
The Beijing News: Have you ever witnessed an execution by lethal injection?
Liu: No, I have just heard about it from some of my friends who work in the legal system. Lethal injections are conducted in special rooms or vehicles designed for this purpose. Convicts are strapped onto a bed and a heart rate monitor is connected to their bodies. Their brainwaves drop to zero in a few seconds after the injection. Legal medical experts write out death certificates based on heartbeat and breath.
The Beijing News: What kind of people can participate in the execution?
Liu: Judges, bailiffs, legal medical experts as well as prosecuting attorneys. The problem is that it does not conform to their work ethic for legal medical experts to "kill" anyone, even condemned inmates. So forensic scientists are only responsible for the death certificates in some places, and bailiffs with specialized training are asked to give lethal injections.
Convicts lose consciousness first and then their hearts stop
The Beijing News: Can you talk about the drug used in the injection?
Liu: The drug has three ingredients: one is to make receivers lose consciousness, one to paralyze the heart and suspend pulmonary activities, and the third ingredient, potassium chloride, can lead to cardiac arrest.
Notably, a lethal injection can also cause the inmate pain. In fact, some unqualified prison staff members have been known to take too long injecting the drug, causing pain to convicts. Additionally, different people have different reactions to different dosages; this demands close attention.
The Beijing News: Is there a standardized drug dosage?
Liu: Currently the drug is provided free of charge to local courts by the Supreme People's Court. Before that, the Supreme Court controlled it and local courts could buy a single dose for 300 yuan (US$41).
Execution grounds and vehicles cost too much
The Beijing News: Lethal injections can be carried out at special execution grounds or in vehicles in China; which one is more commonly used?
Liu: It is not easy to popularize the new method in China because it costs a lot. At present, specially designed execution grounds and vehicles for lethal injection aren't available in most district or county courts. It is estimated that a lethal injection vehicle would cost 700,000 yuan (US$95,812) and an execution field 1 million yuan (US$136,874). As far as I know, the vehicles were very popular a few years ago, but the number has decreased in the recent years. Lethal injection vehicles need regular maintenance and they're abandoned after a period of time, so many courts prefer building execution grounds.
The Beijing News: Are you saying that it's difficult to popularize lethal injections in China?
Liu: Formal execution fields are expensive, which may be one reason why it is difficult to spread the new method in rural areas.
Is lethal injection a "privilege" for wealthy people?
The Beijing News: According to reports, local intermediate people's courts administer most lethal injections, is this true?
Liu: All cases carrying the possibility of a death penalty must be first submitted to intermediate people's courts, so they administer the majority of executions via lethal injection.
The Beijing News: Some people have questioned whether lethal injection is a "privilege" for corrupt officials and wealthy convicts, could you please comment on this?
Liu: I don't think it is the case because the issue is economic: it's expensive to use lethal injections. Execution grounds are often located in cities, where corrupt officials and wealthy convicts are usually detained, so it is convenient for these criminals to receive lethal injections.
But the question is not completely beyond all reason. Courts decide whether to choose shooting or lethal injection for a death penalty case. Given that corruption is very common inside some judicial departments, weak credibility can often raise questions from the public.
The Beijing News: I have even heard that condemned criminals detained in the same place receive different executions.
Liu: I also heard about this, too. In a provincial capital city, most of the condemned criminals can receive lethal injections, while a few very hardened criminals are shot. I do not approve of this because I think all convicts should receive the same treatment. Lethal injections should be administered to all of them if possible.
Liu suggests special fund for execution fields
The Beijing News: Do you think lethal injections compared with shooting have more advantages?
Liu: The new method is more humane, and it is less painful for inmates and less stressful for the prison staff.
The Beijing News: Can lethal injection avoid these kinds of problems?
Liu: Convicts and bailiffs are separated during lethal injections. They can't see each other. Inmates reach out their hands through a hole to receive injections in some execution fields.
The Beijing News: Is there a better way?
Liu: Four injections with the same dosage and color are provided in some places when carrying out a lethal injection. One contains a fatal drug; one is supporting medicine and also there are two injections of saline water. Four bailiffs will choose their injections randomly. No one knows who has been given the fatal drug, which is helpful for relieving psychological stresses among the operational staff, according to reports.
We should not neglect the psychological problems among prison staff. In China, we have a superstition here that administering a death penalty is not auspicious for the fate of executioners. I feel that psychologists should be involved before and after an execution.
The Beijing News: Do condemned criminals prefer lethal injections?
Liu: No one would chose shooting, according to a Supreme People's Court poll given to convicts.
The Beijing News: How can this last wish of condemned convicts be fulfilled?
Liu: Given that the right of reviewing the death sentence belongs to the Supreme People's Court and that the number of death penalties has sharply decreased, the time is ripe for China to abolish shooting and popularize lethal injection executions nationwide. Special funds are needed to build formal execution fields for lethal injections.
(China.org.cn by Yang Xi, January 3, 2008)