Court to hear case on executions
Suit challenges doctors' roles in lethal injections
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/03/07
Arguments in a lawsuit challenging the role of physicians in carrying out Georgia's death penalty will be heard by the state Court of Appeals Tuesday.
A group of seven doctors, including three practicing in Georgia, filed a lawsuit in 2005 arguing that the state Composite Board of Medical Examiners, which licenses and investigates complaints against doctors, should punish physicians who help the state carry out lethal injections.
The doctors contend the medical board should uphold American Medical Association guidelines that prohibit the profession from participating in executions. They also maintain that physician participation violates the Hippocratic Oath to never do harm or prescribe a deadly drug.
The board has said that Georgia law is the prevailing guide in its decisions, not the AMA. Physician attendance at executions is required by state law. Lawyers for the state argued the doctors challenging the system lacked standing to sue because they cannot show they have been harmed in any way.
Last year, a Fulton County Superior Court judge sided with the state and dismissed the claims the doctors, who include Dr. Arthur Zitrin, a death penalty abolitionist in New York, three other out-of-state physicians and three Georgians — Drs. Daniel Blumenthal, Kelly Thrasher and Jerome Walker.
Atlanta lawyers Gerry Weber and Hollie Manheimer appealed the decision. In a brief before the appeals court, the lawyers wrote that the plaintiffs' "professional reputations are injured when Georgia physicians violate the Hippocratic Oath and an explicit American Medical Association ethical standard barring physician participation in executions."
The death penalty is on hold in 11 states over questions of lethal injection, including whether it violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Though the death penalty is not on hold in Georgia, the state has not carried out an execution since July 2005, when Robert Dale Conklin was put to death for a mutilation murder in Sandy Springs.
Prison guards in Georgia operate the machinery that automatically administers a combination of fatal drugs to condemned inmates. But physicians occasionally have had to help nurses find a suitable vein or order up more drugs to hasten death.
Zitrin, who opposes physician participation in executions, tried unsuccessfully in 2004 to get the state medical board to punish Dr. Hothur V. Sanjeeva Rao, a Georgia doctor who used to assist the Georgia Department of Corrections in carrying out lethal injections at the state prison in Jackson, about 45 minutes south of Atlanta in Butts County.