Friday, 21 August 2009

Former Ohio executioner: EMT experience can be an asset

COLUMBUS -- While others debate the death penalty and lethal injection, Ohio's longest-serving executioner provided a personal perspective on carrying out the unwanted job, saying his experience as an emergency medical technician helped him handle the stress.

Known as Team Member 18, the now-former executioner testified in March in an ongoing federal case brought by Ohio death-row inmates.

Separately, a state lawyer's legal opinion requested by the office that oversees EMTs said Wednesday that the state cannot stop emergency medical technicians from serving as members of Ohio's execution team.

"I have had to deal with death and dying on a daily basis as a paramedic," Team Member 18 testified.

He said the state never trained him in the use or makeup of the lethal drugs used in executions. Instead, he relied on his EMT experience when trying to figure out if the first drug had put a death row inmate to sleep.

"Thirty years of experience in monitoring patients," he said. "Watching for vital sign changes, watching for movement changes, just watching the person as I would if it was a person in my care."

He said he didn't keep a tally of executions and couldn't always remember individual cases.

"I don't keep that close a track on it," he said. "It's a job I do, and I just don't try to recall."

U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost allowed the executioner and three other execution team members to answer questions anonymously and to sit behind a blackboard. Frost later ruled that Ohio's lethal injection system was flawed but not unconstitutional.

Jonathan Groner, an Ohio State University surgeon and former member of the board that regulates EMTs, maintains they are breaking the law by administering drugs beyond what their certification allows.

But Wednesday's legal opinion found the State Emergency Medical Services Board has no jurisdiction to investigate the issue because the technicians are not acting as EMTs when putting people to death. Instead, the EMTs are included on the state execution team because they possess skills such as inserting intravenous needles, not because they are working as EMTs under medical direction, the opinion said.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has two certified EMTs on its execution team. Team Member 18, who retired last month, was replaced by another EMT.

Team Member 18 said he agreed to join the execution team in 1993 out of a belief that executions should be done as professionally and humanely as possible.

"I just felt, at that time, and always have, that it needed to be handled in a professional, humane manner, and that it should be someone with training," he testified.

The executioner oversaw 27 of 29 executions since the state began putting people to death again in 1999.

Team Member 17, a backup executioner who also inserted IVs in condemned inmates' arms, also testified he wasn't trained in using the drugs.

Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist at Columbia University Medical Center who has studied lethal injection cases across the nation, testified in the same case that the executioner shouldn't administer the drugs because he lacks training and understanding of how they work.

The prison system maintains execution team members are qualified, and the agency has no qualms about their training.

In May, North Carolina's state Supreme Court ruled that physicians cannot be punished for participating in executions. The court said the North Carolina Medical Board overstepped its power with a threat to discipline doctors who participate in executions.


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