Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Doctor details execution procedure

RALEIGH - Dr. Obi Umesi, the Raleigh physician present for at least 18 of the state's past 20 executions, testified on Monday that he was never asked by prison officials to monitor inmates' vital signs during executions.

Umesi's testimony was the first public airing by an execution team member about what happens inside North Carolina's death chamber. In March, Umesi granted an interview to The News & Observer to discuss his role in executions but has not spoken publicly since then.

In both instances, Umesi characterized his actions as complying with an N.C. Medical Board ethics policy that restricts doctors' participation in executions. The testimony and interview contradict prison officials, who were required by a federal judge to have a doctor monitor the lethal injection procedure.

Umesi testified before an administrative law judge who is considering a petition by five death row inmates challenging the Council of State's Feb. 6 approval of the prison officials' new execution protocol. The inmates' attorneys say they were denied a chance to speak to the council, which includes Gov. Mike Easley, Lt. Gov Beverly Perdue and eight other elected state officials, when it approved the new procedures. This is one of several legal battles related to the state's current death penalty standstill.

At issue at the hearing was the new execution procedure that would require a doctor to monitor the inmate's "essential body functions," which Umesi said he would not do. If the inmate shows any signs of pain or suffering, the doctor would notify the warden, who would stop the execution, and efforts would be made to revive the condemned inmate.

That protocol appears to contradict the medical board's ethics policy.

Elizabeth Kuniholm of Raleigh, one of the inmates' attorneys, argued to Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison that the council made a mistake by approving execution procedures that cannot be carried out.

"Any physician who is licensed by the North Carolina Medical Board cannot do what this protocol asks for," Kuniholm argued.

North Carolina has not executed any inmates since questions were raised earlier this year about what role, if any, doctors should play in executions.

A debate is raging here and across the country about whether the drug cocktail commonly used in executions adequately sedates inmates before paralyzing and heart-stopping drugs are injected. If the inmates aren't properly sedated, their lawyers argue, they could be awake for their painful deaths but unable to move or speak because of the drug-induced paralysis. That, they argue, would be cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional.

Last year, a federal judge in North Carolina allowed the last two executions to go forward based on the representation by prison officials that a doctor would monitor the inmates' consciousness.

Umesi, Wake County's jail doctor, said he was present at executions because he regularly worked as a contract physician at Central Prison's hospital on Thursday nights when executions occurred.

For many years, Umesi testified, he stayed in the warden's office on the first floor of Central Prison during executions -- away from the second-floor death chamber -- and simply signed death certificates. Within the past two or three years, Umesi said, the warden asked him to move to an observation room adjacent to the death chamber. He said that though the room has a window into the death chamber, he could not see the inmate from where he stood. Umesi testified he could not see the screens of either the heart monitor or the brain-wave machine.

Umesi added that prison officials never asked him to monitor either machines' readings -- despite the judge's order.

At Monday's hearing, Kuniholm asked Umesi: "From where you stand in the observation room would it be possible for you to determine if the inmate was experiencing undue pain and suffering?"

"Practically impossible," Umesi responded.

On cross-examination, Umesi conceded that he had looked at the monitors' readings not because it was his duty but because the observation room is small.

The judge also heard testimony from an anesthesiologist and a veterinarian who said the new execution procedures will not ensure inmates' experience painless deaths. Their testimony is part of what the inmates' lawyers say the council should have heard at its Feb. 6 meeting.

Dr. Kevin Concannon, the veterinarian, said he would not use North Carolina's execution protocol to euthanize animals. "My opinion is I would not use this protocol in my hospital, nor would I recommend that other veterinarians use this protocol to perform euthanasia."

Staff writer Andrea Weigl can be reached at 829-4848 or andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com.

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