By CARLOS CAMPOS The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 06/13/07
Georgia's first execution by lethal injection in almost two years is set to take place this month, even as other states have halted the procedure over questions about its legality.
The state Department of Corrections has scheduled the execution of triple murderer John Washington Hightower for June 26 at the state prison in Jackson.
Since the electric chair was ruled unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2001, Georgia has put 16 men to death by lethal injection. Georgia has not executed a condemned inmate since Robert Dale Conklin on July 12, 2005.
Nine states, concerned about challenges to lethal injection as an unlawful "cruel and unusual punishment" have temporarily suspended executions, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Courts in California and Missouri have ruled that the lethal injection procedure was unconstitutional, forcing both states to put a hold on executions while they re-examine their protocols.
"I think that has particularly contributed to fewer executions this year," Dieter said of the legal concerns. "The numbers were already down some, but this has dropped them even further."
Concerns over potential innocence, given the recent number of highly publicized DNA exonerations, have also contributed to a decline in executions and death sentences.
Executions were down in the U.S. in 2006 to a 10-year low of 56, according to a report by the center. There have been only 22 this year — 15 of them in Texas.
Georgia finished reworking its execution procedures last week. On Monday, the order for Hightower's execution was issued. Officials in Georgia say the timing had nothing to do with lethal injection protocol and that it's just a matter of how lengthy appeals work their way through the courts.
Georgia uses a three-drug "cocktail" of lethal chemicals that works to put an inmate to sleep, paralyzes body functions and stops the heart from beating. Some death penalty opponents have said that the paralytic agent used can mask the pain of a burning sensation through the veins caused by the third chemical. Others contend not enough anesthetic has been used in some executions.
Even the physician who developed the lethal combination of drugs, Dr. Jay Chapman, has recently questioned its effectiveness and continued use. Chapman has suggested in news reports that there are better anesthetics than the ones currently used.
The Georgia Department of Corrections recently updated its execution protocol, but did not change the combination of chemicals used. A physician is required to be present in the death chamber during executions, though medical technicians usually insert the intravenous needles. Anonymous, trained prison employees activate the plungers that deliver the chemicals.
Mark Guzzi, assistant general counsel for the Department of Corrections, said Tuesday the prison system is prepared to carry out the Hightower execution in a humane, legal manner.
"We reviewed some cases that are being litigated in other states across the country to identify the issues that are being raised there and compare them to our practices," Guzzi said. "Based on that review, we believe our practices are constitutional."
Guzzi said the state did not change the fatal chemicals because "there's a difference in opinion among experts regarding those claims." He said the state uses far more than enough anesthetic to properly sedate inmates. Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said he would not be surprised if a legal challenge — outside the usual claims made by the condemned's lawyers — was made in Georgia.
Lawyers for Hightower did not return telephone messages left at their offices on Tuesday.
Hightower was sentenced to death for the 1987 murder of his wife, Dorothy Hightower, and her two children, Evelyn and Sandra Reaves. All three were shot in the head. Hightower had been having marital problems and had been drinking and snorting cocaine the day of the murders in the family home in Milledgeville, according to Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office. Hightower had purchased a firearm and ammunition the day before the murders. He allowed 3-year-old Kisha Reaves, who was also in the house, to live.
There are 104 men on death row at the state prison in Jackson, where executions are carried out. One woman is on death row at the state prison in southeast Atlanta.