New Voices

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."

NEW VOICES: Once a Supporter, Colorado Governor Explains Opposition to Death Penalty

In a recent interview, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper stated his opposition to the death penalty, citing the views of murder victims' family members and the high cost of implementing capital punishment. Hickenlooper said he had supported the death penalty until he learned more about it. “My whole life I was in favor of the death penalty," he said, "But then you get all this information: it costs 10 times, maybe 15 times more money to execute someone than to put someone in prison for life without parole. There’s no deterrence to having capital punishment. And I don’t know about you, but when I get new facts, I’ll change my opinion. I didn’t know all of this stuff." In 2013, he granted an indefinite reprieve to death row inmate Nathan Dunlap, saying, “If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado’s system for capital punishment is not flawless.” Because of the general basis for Hickenlooper's grant of a stay, it would appear to put a hold on all executions while he is governor.

NEW VOICES: Former Texas Governor, FBI Chief Ask Texas to Commute Death Sentence

Former Texas Governor Mark White and former FBI director William Sessions have petitioned Texas to grant clemency to death row inmate Max Soffar because of the strong chance that a reversal of his conviction will come too late due to his rapidly declining medical condition. Soffar's case has been reversed before, and his latest appeal is pending before a federal court. Soffar's supporters are asking that he be allowed to spend his last days at home before he dies of liver cancer. He has been on death row for over 33 years, consistently maintaining his innocence. "Nothing can save me," said Soffar. "I'm going to die. I've talked to my doctor — maybe five months, maybe four months, maybe three weeks." His lawyers said, "The reality is that the federal court process will likely not be completed before Mr. Soffar dies. The exigency of this situation is the driving force behind what Mr. Soffar admits is an unusual request for clemency at this stage of a capital case."

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."

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.

Kentucky Holds First Public Hearing on Future of Death Penalty

A joint committee of 32 senators and representatives held the first public hearing on Kentucky's death penalty since capital punishment was reinstated there in 1975. The hearing was prompted by a death penalty repeal bill proposed by Republican Rep. David Floyd, who said the death penalty should be ended because of the cost and time it takes for cases to complete the appeals process. He was also concerned about the number of death penalty cases that have been overturned. A 2011 study by the American Bar Association found that 64% of the death sentences they examined were later overturned or commuted. Rep. Floyd said, "Conservatives in general have less trust in government. Why would we trust them in a matter of life and death? If people are given the opportunity to consider all those things, they may come to the same conclusion, that life without parole is a better option for Kentucky." Kentucky has carried out three executions since reinstatement, but executions are currently on hold while a judge reviews the state's lethal injection protocol.

NEW VOICES: Attorney General Criticizes Secrecy in Lethal Injections

On July 31, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about the death penalty review underway at the Department of Justice and the need for greater transparency in lethal injection methods. Holder said he was "greatly troubled" by the recent botched executions, adding that states should provide more information about the drugs they plan to use. He said, "[F]or the state to exercise that greatest of all powers, to end a human life, it seems to me... that transparency would be a good thing, and to share the information about what chemicals are being used, what drugs are being used. And it would seem to me that would be a better way to do this." He added, "[T]here is an obligation, it seems to me, on the part of the executive branch that’s charged with that responsibility to be forthcoming about the mechanisms, the means by which this most serious of executive branch actions can be carried out." On the progress of the death penalty review ordered by President Obama, Holder said, "We have people from our Civil Rights Division, our Criminal Division, various other components within the department looking at our protocol and taking into account what we have seen happen in the states recently, as we try to work our way through how the federal government is going to impose the death penalty."

Leading Medical Experts Contradict Arizona's Description of Execution

Although Arizona officials have claimed that Joseph Wood was "brain dead" during his two-hour execution on July 23, prominent medical experts from around the country strongly disagreed. David Waisel, associate professor of anaesthesia at Harvard medical school, said a person who is brain dead will stop breathing unless kept alive on a ventilator. “There is no way anyone could ever look at someone and make that kind of diagnosis. He was still breathing, so he was not brain dead. This is an example where they threw out a term that has a precise medical definition, but they didn't know what it means.” Dr. Chitra Venkat, clinical associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University, said, “If you are taking breaths, you are not brain dead. Period. That is not compatible with brain death, at all. In fact, it is not compatible with any form of death.” And Dr. Robert D. Stevens (pictured), associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, noted, “Any type of breathing, gasping, whatever it is, immediately indicates that the patient is not brain dead.” Columbia University anesthesiologist Mark Heath called the use of midazolam (part of Arizona's lethal injection regimen) "a failed experiment."

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