| AUSTIN, Texas, July 25
AUSTIN, Texas, July 25 Troubled lethal
injections in Oklahoma and Arizona have raised questions whether
medical personnel are skilled enough to humanely put an inmate
to death, and if things go wrong, expert enough to revive one if
an order is given.
Almost all of the 32 states that use the death penalty
either require or permit a physician to attend executions, which
often are carried out by lesser-trained medical personnel, but
doctors who participate risk losing their license to practice
medicine if they are discovered to have helped.
Among the reasons for the recent problems include that
medical personnel in the death chamber may not be familiar with
mixing or administering new lethal cocktails being used after
traditional supplies of execution drugs dried up, nor treating
any side effects.
"If the only thing you know how to do is insert into a vein,
then what happens if that person stays conscious? You are not
the expert who is needed at that time," said Richard Dieter,
executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Corrections officials say their protocols are designed to
conduct executions as humanely as possible with personnel being
thoroughly trained for the roles they perform.
The U.S. lethal injection process underwent a fundamental
change in 2011, when drug company Hospira stopped making
short-acting barbiturate and general anesthetic sodium
thiopental, due to concerns about its widespread use in
executions. It was the lone U.S. manufacturer of the drug.
Since then, states have developed new drug combinations and
turned to new suppliers, usually in secret. A number of death
row inmates have sued, arguing that untested drugs of
questionable quality could cause undo harm and suffering in
violation of the U.S. Constitution.
There was a doctor present at the execution in Oklahoma in
April, where an IV popped out when rapist and murderer Clayton
Lockett was being executed. Prison officials halted the
execution, but Lockett died of a heart attack about 40 minutes
after the procedure started.
Similarly in Arizona, a doctor was present on Wednesday when
it took at least two doses of a lethal drug cocktail to execute
double murderer Joseph Wood. The Arizona Department of
Corrections said the IVs were properly placed, and that Wood was
fully sedated throughout the procedure.
Arizona has promised an internal review but disputes that
the execution was botched even as lawyers for the inmate said he
gasped and struggled for breath for more than 90 minutes before
The two hours it took between when the injection started and
when the inmate was declared dead was far longer than the three
to 15 minutes it has typically taken inmates to die in other
executions in recent years.
The typical protocol for states requires that a medically
trained person - such as a paramedic, military corpsman or
certified medical assistant - administer the IV. Names are kept
secret, including of any doctor who may assist.
Under guidelines set by the American Medical Association, a
physician can confirm the death of an executed inmate. But a
physician cannot declare death, administer drugs, monitor vital
signs, select injection sites, start an IV, supervise drug
injections or consult with a person carrying out the injection.
"A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to
preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a
participant in a legally authorized execution," the AMA said.
A separate paper from its journal said those who violate the
code of ethics on executions risk having their licenses revoked
by state medical boards.
The few physicians who take the risk usually do it out of
circumstance and not necessarily because they have expertise in
the drug protocol, according to a 2006 paper from the New
England Journal of Medicine.
It said one doctor, board certified in internal medicine and
critical care, told the Journal he was asked to help by a local
warden and did so because the sentence was society's order and
because the punishment did not seem wrong.
Another doctor, a prison physician, said he participated to
make sure the execution was done correctly.
"I think that if I had to face someone I loved being put to
death, I would want that done by lethal injection, and I would
want to know that it is done competently," the doctor said.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Heide
Brandes in Oklahoma City and Kevin Murphy in Kansas City;
Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)