photo of two syringes and a judges gavel.

Crime, punishment and publication

Second year law student co-authors article on lethal injections in Texas

One law student now has an extraordinary souvenir by which to remember her work as an undergraduate.

Richelle Kloch, who’s in her second year at the law school, saw her senior thesis at Niagara University adapted into a paper just published by the academic journal, American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 64(12): 1715-32 (2020).

The article, “Examination of Decision Making and Botched Lethal Injection Executions in Texas,” incorporates research from Kloch’s 155-page capstone thesis and is credited to her and two Niagara faculty members, Professor Talia Roitberg Harmon and Professor Michael Cassidy.  It looks at the extrajudicial decision by Texas prison officials in 2011 to use only a single drug to execute condemned prisoners, rather than the previous three-drug procedure. It shows that inmates subjected to this protocol were more likely to suffer pain and other complications during the execution.

Richelle Kloch.

Richelle Kloch '22

Kloch, who majored in criminology and criminal justice at Niagara, says she got interested in capital punishment after reading the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a death penalty lawyer. She asked Professor Talia Roitberg Harmon, who chairs the Niagara University’s Department of Criminal Justice, to be her thesis adviser.  Together they narrowed the focus of the project to the issue of Texas’ execution drug protocol, how it was arrived at, and the use of compounding pharmacies in supplying the lethal drugs.

“Nobody has really done anything like this before,” Kloch says. “There is research about compounding pharmacies, but not about the actual executions, getting information about the inmates and whether they experienced complications.”

To research the topic, Kloch examined executions in Texas from 1982 to 2020, 553 cases in all. It was painstaking work – “I had a very difficult time getting the information,” she says – that involved database searching and chasing down stories from online newspaper archives.

The work was emotionally draining as well. “Some nights I had to take a night off or put a limit on how many hours I would work,” she says. “It was very difficult. The most chilling cases were the inmates who were executed and it was found out later that they were innocent.”

American Behavioral Scientist, a peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal, devotes each issue to a single topic in the social sciences. A frequent collaborator of Professor Harmon was guest-editing an issue of the journal on therapeutic justice.  Harmon saw an opportunity to publish a version of Kloch’s paper and share her findings.

“The data that Richelle collected had to be tweaked a little to conform with the theme of the special issue,” Harmon says. “What we really focused on was that Texas officials made this switch through non-judicial decision-making. We argue that the protocol switch goes against any therapeutic jurisprudence principle.

“From my perspective, Richelle made an amazing legal argument,” she says. “It was just so above and beyond – more graduate-level work than undergraduate. It was a pleasure to work with her.”

For her part, Kloch says she was surprised that condemned inmates experienced complications at the rates she found. “The way it’s happening now, it’s like we’ve gone back in time,” she says. “I honestly thought I would find something completely different. I don’t think it’s humane.”