27 September, 2006

lethal injection hearings

U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, who is conducting a four-day hearing exploring the inner workings of lethal injection, began the proceedings by emphasizing that the case is not a referendum on the death penalty. Fogel is considering death row inmate Michael Morales' argument that California's lethal injection procedures violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. "It's inaccurate to say an execution has to be painless," Fogel said. "The question is whether the degree of pain is so severe that it raises constitutional issues under the Eighth Amendment.'' . . . the case [is] one of a mounting number of legal challenges to lethal injection unfolding across the country. Fogel has effectively put executions on hold in California while he considers the Morales case, which began in February when the judge postponed the killer's execution.
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"I would not use that protocol on veterinary patients,'' [Dr. Kevin] Concannon said.

The veterinary profession has outlawed the use of one of the three drugs used in California executions, pancurium bromide, which paralyzes the muscles, because of concerns that it can conceal a painful death. Opponents of lethal injection say the method does not eliminate the possibility that an inmate will suffer excruciating pain because the combination of drugs used in executions may mask any suffering. A total of 37 of 38 states with the death penalty use lethal injection.

In California, prison officials first administer sodium thiopental, a sedative, to render the inmate unconscious, then the pancurium bromide and finally potassium chloride, which stops the heart. The state recently changed its procedure to call for a continuous infusion of the sedative throughout an execution in hopes of ensuring unconsciousness.

. . . William Ebling, a researcher in pharmaceuticals, testified that the state's use of sedatives does not take into account differences in how an inmate's body may react, and therefore there is a risk of "having a painful execution.'' San Jose Mercury News
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Mark Heath, a New York anesthesiologist and frequent expert witness for death row inmates around the country, spent three hours on the witness stand, outlining for a federal judge the reasons that California's execution system is broken. From poor training of execution team members to evidence of foul ups in executions, Heath said some of the problems are "almost hard to believe. It'll forever be an unknown in California whether they've reliably performed a humane execution,'' Heath testified.

Heath's testimony came in the second day of a unprecedented hearing unfolding this week in federal court in San Jose, where U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel is considering death row inmate Michael Morales' challenge to California's use of lethal injection. . . . Based on logs kept from executions, Heath suggested there is evidence that in some instances execution team members have failed to properly sedate an inmate before administering the final and fatal doses of drugs. . . .

Critics of lethal injection say that if an inmate is not fully unconscious from the first drug, the second drug can mask the excruciating pain of the third and fatal drug, potassium chloride. Morales' lawyers argue that the state only uses the second drug because it keeps an inmate from involuntary movements that might make an execution more unpleasant to witness.
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Heath, in his testimony, pointed to a series of recent depositions taken of former San Quentin execution team members who acknowledged that they didn't even know all three drugs used in executions, and in some instances hadn't read the state's guidelines, known as Protocol 770, for executing inmates.

In addition, Heath said the execution team members were not properly trained to administer the sedatives, heightening the risk that prisoners have not been fully unconscious during executions. He also testified that the state's system is so sloppy that officials can't even account for all the sedatives checked out from San Quentin's pharmacy for executions.
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There are more than 650 inmates on death row in California.    San Jose Mercury News

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