John Allen Muhammad died by lethal injection today.
John Muhammad and his teenage accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo were a deadly team. They became known as the Beltway Snipers. They are a little unusual in that they formed a murderous pair while most snipers tend to work alone. Sniping is one of the most difficult crimes to solve and indeed this case took many twists and turns and crossed many state lines before this pair was finally captured sleeping in a car at an interstate rest stop.
Most murders are committed by someone who knows the victim. There is usually a connection. There is usually a payoff. There is usually some interpersonal reason for the murder to have taken place. Not so with certain types of serial predators: snipers, serial bombers, and serial arsonists. Rather than having an issue with an individual, these criminals tend to hold grudges governments, organizations, or some defined group of individuals. I’m not sure that we know exactly why this pair went on a shooting spree but Though some have suggested that the entire ordeal was some elaborate plan for Muhammad to off his ex-wife, I would suspect that it was likely an issue with the government.
In 2002, when the leaves were just beginning to show their fall colors, this pair gunned down 10 people over a three-week span in Washington DC and the surrounding areas. It created much fear and confusion for those who had to travel the freeways, pump gas into their cars, collect their children from school, or go about daily life. The lightning bolt could strike anyone, anywhere, anytime. How do you defend against something like that?
These guys were clever. They used the trunk of a car as their sniper lair, the trunk muffling the sound and hiding the shooter from view. This likely helped prevent anyone from seeing the shootings take place or from reporting the sounds of gunfire.
It’s entirely possible that at least John Muhammad, with or without Lee Malvo, killed as many as 27 people throughout the Southeast. At least Lee Malvo has made statements to suggest that.
Now the state of Virginia has put John Muhammad to death. Not with a gunshot, not with the electric chair, not with the inhalation of cyanide gas, not swinging from the end of the rope, but rather by lethal injection.
Lethal injection is performed by giving three drugs in sequence. The first is a sedative such as sodium thiopental, a fast acting barbiturate that puts the person into a deep coma in less than a minute. The second is a muscular paralytic drug such as pancuronium. This is also extremely fast acting and paralyzes all muscles in the body, including those needed for respiration. The final drug is potassium chloride, a normal constituent of the blood and every cell in the body, which if given in large doses stops the heart immediately.
These first two drugs are used on thousands and thousands of people every day. They are common preoperative medications. When you go to the hospital and they start the IV and give you a medicine while asking you to count backwards from 100, this is usually some form of sedative such as sodium thiopental. Most people get to about 98. Then a muscular paralytic agent is given to relax the entire body and to facilitate the passage of the endotracheal tube, a tube passed through the mouth and into the trachea to ventilate the patient throughout the surgical procedure. The only medicine that is avoided in this circumstance is the potassium chloride. So lethal injection, at least from the recipient’s point of view, is not much different than getting a colonoscopy — except you don’t have to go through that aggravating prep.
I was recently asked by a writer whether someone who was given a lethal injection could then be saved. The answer is yes. It simply takes CPR. Since the drugs given are designed to stop breathing and then stop the heart, CPR with its ventilation support and external cardiac massage to provide circulation of the blood will prevent death. In order to reverse the potassium chloride that stopped of a heart in the first place intravenous glucose and insulin are given, and perhaps some intravenous calcium. These immediately reverse the effects of the potassium on the cardiac conduction system and the cardiac rhythm is quickly restored. Then it is simply a matter of breathing for the person until the other drugs wear off. If this intervention is done quickly, the victim will awaken and survive the ordeal with no ill effects. If the intervention is delayed then of course brain damage could follow, and if it is delayed further still, death would occur and none of these interventions would help. So it is possible to save someone after a lethal injection if actions are taken quickly.
The only downside that I can see to the death of John Muhammad is that there may be many unsolved murders, performed by his hand, that we may never know about. But he wasn’t talking anyway so even if he lived we still might never know.
All in all, John Muhammad got off pretty easy. Adios.