Lethal injection as a method of execution has become a hot button issue for those who deal with death penalty cases. Since I handle death penalty habeas cases, I express no opinion on the merits of the current practice of lethal injection. That said, I ran across a historical tidbit that I found fascinating and informative.
In January 1936, King George V was given a fatal dose of morphine and cocaine in order to hasten his death. At the time the King was suffering from cardiorespiratory failure, and the decision to end his life was made by his physician, Lord Dawson. This remained a secret for over 50 years.
Dawson wrote in his diary:
At about 11 o’clock it was evident that the last stage might endure for many hours, unknown to the patient but little comporting with the dignity and serenity which he so richly merited and which demanded a brief final scene. Hours of waiting just for the mechanical end when all that is really life has departed only exhausts the onlookers and keeps them so strained that they cannot avail themselves of the solace of thought, communion or prayer. I therefore decided to determine the end and injected (myself) morphia gr.3/4 and shortly afterwards cocaine gr. 1 into the distended jugular vein.
J.H.R. Ramsay, A king, a doctor, and a convenient death, 308 British Medical Journal 1445 (May 28, 2011) (abstract freely available; full article requires subscription).
The King’s nurse refused to give the injection. As Ramsay wrote in 2011,
To her credit, Sister Catherine Black of the London Hospital, who was present and who had nursed the king since the 1928 illness, refused to give the lethal injection, which is why Dawson had to give it himself. Nevertheless, faced with conflicting loyalties, she kept quiet about what had been done and her autobiography published in 1939 made no mention of what must have been the most poignant and unforgettable episode in her long and distinguished career.
Why did Lord Dawson really decide that night to kill the King by lethal injection? “The reason for his action, which Dawson frankly admits in his diary, was to ensure that the announcement of the king’s death should appear first in the morning edition of the Times and not in some lesser publication later in the day. ” Id.
After reading the account of Lord Dawson’s use of lethal injection to kill King George V, the sardonic might well say “If lethal injection was good enough for a King, it is good enough for a killer.” But that would facile, wouldn’t it?