Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Expert: state execution protocols flawed

Administrative law judge Fred Morrison (center) is surrounded by reporters as Philip Boysen, (left) an anesthesiologist, testifies during a hearing today to decide whether state officials followed the proper process when they approved a system for executing inmates.

RALEIGH — An anesthesiologist and a veterinarian testified this morning that the state's execution procedures do not ensure inmates will experience a painless death.

Five inmates have sued the Council of State, a panel of top state elected officials who in February approved a new execution protocol. Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison has to decide whether the council would have disproved the protocol if it had heard from the inmates' lawyers.

Today's hearing is the latest movement in the state's death penalty stalemate, which began earlier this year over questions about what role, if any, doctors should play in executions.
Dr. Philip Boysen, a professor of anesthesiology at the UNC School of Medicine, testified that there are several flaws with the state's execution protocol. They include not having a doctor in the death chamber, use of a brain-wave monitor as the lone indicator of the inmate's consciousness and having a sheet cover the inmate's arms so a doctor cannot see where the drugs are being injected.

With those flaws, Boysen testified that what happened to Florida inmate Angel Diaz, whose execution took 34 minutes because the drugs were injected into tissue instead of veins, could happen with a North Carolina inmate.

Then Dr. Keith Concannon, a Cary 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," Concannon testified.

After the lunch break, Dr. Obi Umesi, a jail doctor who has attended dozens of executions, is expected to testify. Umesi has said he did not monitor the inmates' vital signs, as a federal judge required. His statements raise questions about whether prison officials violated a federal judge's order.

A state law requires a doctor to be present at executions. Last year, a federal judge allowed two executions to go forward with the understanding that a doctor would monitor the inmates' vital signs. In January, the N.C. Medical Board approved a new ethics policy that prohibits a doctor from doing anything more than being present at an execution. The inmates went into court saying the executions could not go forward without a doctor's involvement.

A state judge halted the executions. The Council of State approved a new protocol that would require a doctor to monitor the inmate's "essential body functions." But prison officials have since been unable to find any doctors willing to participate.

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

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