The Execution Of Catherine Willows

Episode Report Card
Sobell: A | 2 USERS: A+
The Executioner's Stall

Just then, the phone rings. Cut to a crash cart entering the execution area, and the same men who prepped the convict for death now attempting to resuscitate him as someone barks, "We've got thirty seconds to revive him."

Oh, where to begin? How about with the issue of what may or may not have entered this guy's veins? Most lethal injection executions have this order: first, the barbiturate sodium thiopental puts the inmate into a deep sleep; second, a saline solution flushes through the IV; third, the muscle relaxant pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the diaphragm and lungs, is injected; then, after another saline flush, potassium chloride is injected in order to interrupt any electrocardial functions. I'm going to assume that Nevada is one of those states that administers an astronomically large dose of sodium thiopental, and the EMTs were rushing in there to try and prevent a barbiturate overdose.

But let's stop and examine the whole oh, we went ahead with the execution, right on the stroke of midnight, and -- whoops! There's a call! angle. Dramatic, yes. Realistic? God, I hope not. Cruel and unusual for a person who was under the impression they were about to die? Absolutely.

Cut to Catherine catching Gil in the labitrail and telling him, "A stay. New evidence -- hair analysis. I've already overnighted the six pubic hairs found on the victim to Norfolk Department of Criminal Justice for mitochondrial DNA analysis." Instead of recapping the tedious chain of events in which a perp's pubes take the red-eye to the Old Dominion, I'm going to swerve into geek monologue number two for the night and explain why mitochondrial DNA analysis could make or break this stay. First -- mitochondria are organelles (a specialized body within a cell) responsible for cellular respiration; anyone who's ever taken basic biology can probably chirp that "mitochondria are the cell's powerhouses!" and may even know a thing or two about ATP production. That's not relevant here. What is relevant is that mitochondria are self-replicating; in other words, it takes a mitochondria to produce another mitochondria, and over the course of the last forty years, researchers (most notably Doug Wallace) deduced that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) inheritance is matrilineal-only; in other words, you've got your mom's mitochondria, and back on down the line. Mary-Claire King, a molecular geneticist from Berkeley, was responsible for pegging a 600-base pair region of mtDNA which is so variable from person to person, it can be used as a way of biologically linking mother to child unambiguously. In addition to the precision which mtDNA allows for in identifying individuals in testing, mtDNA is also more likely to be recovered in small or degraded biological samples, because mtDNA molecules are present in hundreds to thousands of copies per cell compared to the nucleus (the other repository for DNA in cellular samples). So, the whole point to testing the mtDNA in this case is to try and establish that it's the convict's hair found at the site, and they'll do so by amplifying that 600 bp region and cross-checking it against a maternal relative's sample via PCR.

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