Today's Gainesville Sun has three articles related to Florida's examination of its lethal injection procedures. Pending a report by a panel appointed by the governor, there is a moratorium on executions in the state.
The Florida Department of Corrections has fought to conceal the identity of doctors who pronounce inmates dead at executions, saying it's against Florida law to reveal these doctors' names. In the death chamber, these physicians wear hoods and goggles, shielding their faces from execution witnesses.
But now the Alachua County medical examiner has released autopsy reports from 18 executions revealing the names of three doctors — Elio Madan, Rodrigo Quintana and Victor Selyutin — who have pronounced executed inmates dead. Unlike the Department of Corrections, the medical examiner contends that state law only protects the identity of the executioner, not these doctors.
The issue of doctor involvement in executions presents a "Catch-22" for Florida and other states trying to fix problems with lethal injection.
While states are working to ensure the lethal injection procedure is medically sound — a statewide commission begins its work Monday in Tampa, examining problems with Florida's execution process — the American Medical Association and other medical groups are telling doctors to shun involvement in executions.
A state investigation found that the botched execution of Angel Diaz last month deviated from procedure in several significant ways.
Now a commission created by the governor will further study the execution, holding its first meeting Monday. But doctors involved in the group may face ethical issues about proposing changes to the lethal injection procedure.
Diaz appeared to shudder, grimace in pain and gasp for air during his Dec. 13 execution, before he stopped moving 24 minutes into the process and was declared dead 10 minutes later. The execution lasted nearly three times as long as normal.
The next morning, Department of Corrections Secretary James McDonough formed a task force to look into the execution. The task force issued a report Dec. 20 that found execution team members didn't report problems injecting an IV and defied procedure in changing the way the lethal drugs were dispensed.
Doctors being involved in executions is nothing new — just look at Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the namesake of the guillotine in the 18th century.
Guillotin helped develop the device as a more humane execution method, but was later disgusted by the way it was used. Dr. Jonathan Groner cites that example in an article warning doctors of the unintended consequences of taking part in executions.
"It's generally worked out badly for doctors and society," said Groner, an associate professor of surgery at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health.
The article, published in the British Medical Journal, looks at doctor involvement in executions ranging from Nazi Germany to the University of Oklahoma anesthesiologist who conceived the lethal injection procedure.
Groner isn't the only doctor who has studied executions as a way of exposing problems. Most significantly, a study by University of Miami physicians has been the basis of lawsuits arguing that lethal injection violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.