Doctor: Execution not medical work
By NATHAN CRABBE
Sun staff writer
TAMPA - A doctor who oversaw the botched execution of Angel Diaz testified Monday that lethal injection shouldn't be scrutinized as if it were a medical procedure.
"There's nothing medical about it nor to equate to it. An execution has absolutely nothing even remotely connected to medicine," said the doctor, whose voice was disguised to protect his identity.
The comments came before Florida's commission on lethal injection, in response to questions about decisions in the Diaz execution that defied typical medical procedures and state guidelines.
The doctor suggested that once the execution starts, medical concerns are irrelevant.
"From that point onward, the condemned inmate will not leave the death chamber alive," he said.
The doctor testified by speaker phone on the commission's last day of testimony. The 11-member panel holds its final meeting Saturday, where it will discuss recommended changes to the state's lethal injection process.
Department of Corrections Secretary James McDonough testified Monday he was open to changes to the procedure and execution personnel.
"If there's fault to be found, then we will fix it," he said. "If there are people to replace, then we'll replace them."
McDonough said he'd withhold judgment on prison personnel's actions in the Diaz execution until the commission completed its work.
Diaz's Dec. 13 execution took about 20 minutes longer than the typical execution and required a rare second round of lethal chemicals. The Alachua County medical examiner testified last week that IV lines went through Diaz's veins, causing lethal chemicals to be injected into his tissues, which took the chemicals longer to work.
But the execution doctor disputed the finding. He said the IV lines were working fine and suggested the lines punctured Diaz's veins after the execution, while the inmate's body was being moved.
He said he would have noticed chemicals building under the inmate's skin during the execution.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see a collection of fluid at an infiltrated IV site," he said.
The claim conflicts with the testimony of physician assistant William Mathews, an execution team member who said he saw a swollen area around the IV site right after the execution.
It also fails to account for why the execution took longer than normal. University of Massachusetts anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Dershwitz testified an inmate should die within a few minutes if procedures are followed and the IV properly inserted.
In Florida's execution procedures, inmates are supposed to be injected with three drugs in sequence. A sedative renders unconsciousness, followed by a paralytic to freeze the muscles and finally the lethal drug that stops the inmate's heart.
The execution doctor testified he has participated in 84 previous executions and served as a resource to five states and the federal government. Florida has had 64 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, including 20 by lethal injection.
After Diaz's execution, then-Gov. Jeb Bush halted all executions and created the commission to investigate. In addition, a corrections department task force did its own investigation of the procedure.
A member of that task force, corrections department attorney Max Changus, said at least three prison guards said they heard Diaz say "What's happening?" during the execution.
The task force also found the executioner had difficulty injecting the first two drugs, so on the advice of medical personnel switched to a backup line to finish the first round of chemicals. Executioners then moved to the second round, defying procedure by injecting the sedative and lethal drug at the same time in both lines.
The execution doctor deflected questions about why those decisions were made.
"The event is done as simply as possible to avoid technical problems," he said. "It's also done as expeditiously as possible and as humanely as can be done under the circumstances."
The execution doctor simply referred to himself as "a medically qualified member of the execution team." He refused to answer questions about his credentials out of a fear it would compromise his identity.
Public records show the names of three doctors who pronounce death in executions. But the corrections department won't confirm whether the doctors are the same ones overseeing executions.
The American Medical Association's ethical guidelines restrict doctors from being involved in executions. McDonough said there are also legal protections and personal reasons to protect execution doctors' identities.
"Perhaps the fact that your family doesn't know about it, your church doesn't know about it, your neighbors don't know about it," he said.
Commission member Dr. David Varlotta, a Tampa anesthesiologist, said the fact doctors are involved in executions despite ethical conflicts raises questions. "I don't know of another field where people are sought out outside the ethical sphere," he said.
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.