Lethal Injection

Texas to Censor Its Autopsy Report in Botched Oklahoma Execution

After the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, Oklahoma officials sent his body to Texas for an independent autopsy. Now it appears that Texas will withhold important information revealed in the course of the autopsy from the public at Oklahoma's request. The autopsy was performed by the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office. Earlier, Michael Thompson, Commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, said the Lockett autopsy report would be made public. However, when a news organization requested the results of the autopsy, Oklahoma objected. Dallas County asked Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbot to rule on releasing the information. The attorney general sided with Oklahoma's request to keep certain items secret, including the identities of the drug preparer, doctors who were present at the execution, and other members of the execution team. Oklahoma wanted even more information to be kept secret, citing provisions of the Oklahoma Open Records Act, but Texas said other information generated during the autoposy, should be released.

News Organizations Sue Oklahoma to View Entire Execution Process

A lawsuit filed in federal court in Oklahoma on August 25 by various news organizations, including the Oklahoma Observer and the Guardian US, seeks to give media witnesses a more complete view of executions than is currently allowed. The petition alleges that the right to witness the entire execution is protected by the First Amendment, stating, "The ability of the press to witness the particular facts and circumstances of each execution, and to report on the same, promotes the proper functioning of the State’s death penalty system and increases public confidence in the integrity of the justice system." Current practice in Oklahoma only permits witnesses to begin watching once officials start administering the lethal injection drugs. The view of witnesses is blocked while the inmate is strapped to the gurney and intravenous lines are inserted. During Clayton Lockett's botched execution in April, the blinds were closed again when Lockett began to writhe and groan after the drugs should have taken effect. Katie Fretland, a reporter who attended Lockett's execution and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said,  “At an execution, the press serves as the public’s eyes and ears. The government shouldn’t be allowed to effectively blindfold us when things go wrong. The public has a right to the whole story, not a version edited by government officials.”

Ohio Had Warnings About Lethal Drugs; State's Expert Witness Withdraws

After Ohio's two-hour attempted execution of Rommel Broom (pictured) in 2009, it explored alternative methods, including an intramuscular injection of midazolam and hydromorphone. Gregory Trout, an attorney with the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction expressed concerns to Dr. Mark Dershwitz, the state's expert witness on lethal injections, about whether these drugs would result in “gasping for air in a hyperventilating fashion, with eyes still open,” and whether it “would create the appearance, at least, of suffering, which would upset witnesses and inspire litigation.” Dr. Dershwitz said such reactions were unlikely. However, Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist at Columbia University, warned the drugs could create “a terrible, arduous, tormenting execution that is also an ugly visual and shameful spectacle.” Ultimately, the drugs were not used intramuscularly but rather injected into the veins of Dennis McGuire in January 2014, resulting in a prolonged execution in which the prisoner struggled and clenched his fists for an extended period. The same drugs were used in the recent two-hour execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona. Dr. Dershwitz, who had served as an expert on lethal injection for 22 states and the federal government, recently withdrew from further involvement as an expert because Ohio had mischaracterized him as a "consultant."

NEW VOICES: An Anesthesiologist's Reflections on an Execution

Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist at Emory University, recently witnessed an execution in Georgia and wrote about the presence of two physicians during the lethal injection he observed. He quoted the Medical Practice Act describing the role of doctors as those "engaged in the diagnosis or treatment of disease, defects, or injuries of human beings." However, he noted, "Life is not a disease, defect, or injury. Nothing in the Medical Practice Act authorizes a physician to cure someone of his life." Dr. Zivot attributed the lack of oversight regarding the doctors' participation to Georgia's secrecy law, which shields the identity of all execution participants: "In Georgia, and in other states that have secrecy laws, medical boards are usurped and the state now authorizes what behavior constitutes acceptable medical practice. This cannot be permitted. If the state prevents the board from regulating certain doctors, public health can be undermined in secret. If the state has the power to immunize physicians from oversight of their peers and colleagues, they have a terrible power to pervert the delivery of healthcare for some bureaucrat's idea of the public good. It is a horrific precedent that can be abused, even with the best of intentions."

Arizona Accused of Violating Its Own Protocol in Executions

In the recent prolonged execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona, the state apparently veered from its execution protocol when it employed 15 doses of lethal injection drugs, rather than just a single dose followed by a second application, if necessary, as stated in its regulations. There have been numerous other instances in which the state appeared to depart from its protocol. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit criticized the state in 2012, saying Arizona “has insisted on amending its execution protocol on an ad hoc basis,” and that it had a “rolling protocol that forces us to engage with serious constitutional questions and complicated factual issues in the waning hours before executions.” In another instance, the federal public defender office said the Department of Corrections failed to check the criminal background of execution team members and ignored a lack of qualifications. One employee leading the medical team in four executions could not recall inserting an IV since he was trained as an emergency medical technician years earlier. In a 2011 execution, the medical team leader replaced one execution drug with another after concluding that they were "essentially equivalent," based on reading the drug packaging and information on the Internet, according to a suit brought by a death row inmate. Dale Baich, an attorney who represented Joseph Wood, said, “There’s the protocol that’s in place and there’s what happens, and those aren’t necessarily the same thing. What we’ve learned from this execution is that the Department of Corrections was making it up as it went along.”

Anesthesiologist Calls Ohio Execution "Inhumane"

The lethal injection of Dennis McGuire in Ohio in January "was not a humane execution," according to Dr. Kent Dively (pictured), a San Diego anesthesiologist who examined records related to the execution, which took nearly 30 minutes to complete. Dr. Dively made the statement in an affidavit related to a civil rights suit filed by McGuire's children. McGuire was the first person in the country to be executed using a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone. Dively stated, "Neither of these drugs combined in the doses used can be depended upon to produce a rapid loss of consciousness and death." He continued, "Mr. McGuire was noted to be straining against his restraints, struggling to breathe, and making hand gestures. More likely than not these represent conscious voluntary actions by Mr. McGuire. They exemplify true pain and suffering in the several minutes before he lost consciousness." He also noted that Ohio's execution protocol states that all executions will be carried out in a "professional, humane, sensitive, and dignified manner," and said the state failed to meet its own standards: "These drugs do not fulfill the criteria set forth by the state of Ohio. They do not provide for an execution in a professional, humane, sensitive, and dignified manner. Allowing the inmate to suffer for a prolonged period struggling to get free and gasping for air before death certainly is not dignified nor humane." He recommended the state "reconsider the drug combinations they are currently employing. Otherwise other inmates in the future could suffer egregious inhumane deaths like Mr. McGuire."

Federal Judge Bars Ohio Executions for 2014

On August 8 U.S. District Judge Gregory L. Frost ruled that no executions may be carried out in Ohio until at least January 2015. The court's ruling lengthened a previous moratorium imposed because of problems with the state's lethal injection protocol. Judge Frost said he extended the stay of executions “in light of the continuing need for discovery and necessary preparations related to the adoption and implementation of the new execution protocol." Three executions, which had been scheduled for the remainder of 2014, and one in early 2015, have been stayed. In January, the execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio took over 25 minutes, with witnesses reporting that McGuire gasped, choked, and appeared to struggle against his restraints. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced in April that it would use larger doses of the same lethal injection drugs in future executions, but Judge Frost stayed all executions until at least mid-August. The state's proposed dosage was the same as that used in the recent botched execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona.

NEW VOICES: Former State Health Official Warns of More Botched Executions

Dr. Marc Stern, the former assistant secretary of healthcare for the Washington Department of Corrections, recently commented on physician participation in executions in the wake of the botched lethal injections in Oklahoma and Arizona. Dr. Stern resigned rather than cooperate with his state's execution plan. He explained his views, "Although its foundation is in medical science, lethal injection is not a medical procedure: it has no therapeutic value, and it is not taught in medical school. A 'successful' lethal injection would require the training and expertise of a medical professional. Finding and accessing a vein – especially in someone who is older, obese or has abused drugs – can be challenging. Choosing a proper medication dose for a patient, monitoring medication administration and its effects, and making necessary course corrections need the expertise of a professional. But legitimate medical procedures are subject to scientific study, open discussion among peers, training, supervisory oversight and improvements in technique. Lethal injection will never benefit from these safeguards for one critically important reason: it violates medical ethics." He acknowledged that some medical professionals are willing to anonymously participate in the process. "However," Stern wrote, "we will continue to risk botched executions because they are conducted in a scientific vacuum."

Read the op-ed below.

Pages