Monday, 12 February 2007

Expert: Lethal injection executions need doctor supervision

Expert: Lethal injection executions need doctor supervision

Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. - There is no way to tell whether a convicted killer was properly sedated before two extremely painful drugs entered his system during a botched execution because blood samples were taken too late, experts told a commission reviewing Florida's execution procedures Monday.

But one of the experts said there are still strong indications Angel Nieves Diaz felt pain.

"Mr. Diaz, in my opinion, was not properly anesthetized when the pancuronium and potassium were delivered to his system," said Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist at Columbia University Medical Center who has studied lethal injection cases across the nation.

Diaz's execution took 34 minutes - twice as long as usual - and required a rare second dose of lethal chemicals because the needles were incorrectly inserted through his veins and into the flesh in his arms, a medical examiner reported. Some witnesses reported Diaz appeared to grimace in pain as the execution dragged on, but prison employees have disputed the claim.

It is normal to wait a day before performing tests on an executed inmate, but in Diaz's case valuable data on the amount of drugs in his system at the time of execution were lost, Heath and another expert witness said. Human bodies can process some drugs after death.

Florida, like many states, uses a deadly mix of chemicals that first sedate a condemned criminal, then paralyze him and finally stop his heart. A proper dose of a sedative is crucial to prevent pain caused by the second two chemicals, Heath said.

Heath said a witness account that Diaz was gasping "like a fish out of water" could be a sign a drug causing painful paralysis took effect before the sedative.

"That is a classic sign - that fish out of water look - of a person who is partially paralyzed who is struggling to gasp for breath," Heath said. But, he added, without chemical evidence or clear witness statements there is no way to tell for certain.

"Lethal injection is a very complicated way of killing people," Heath said. "These drugs should only be administered by trained and experienced medical specialists."

Panelists said it is difficult to find a physician willing to defy American Medical Association guidelines that bar doctors from taking part, directly or indirectly, in executions.

"I think a lot of them talk like they would, but when it comes down to actually doing it they think about it and can't get themselves to do it," said Dr. David Varlotta, a Tampa anesthesiologist serving on the commission.

Diaz, 55, was sentenced to death for killing a Miami topless bar manager 27 years ago. He had proclaimed his innocence.

After the botched execution, then-Gov. Jeb Bush halted executions in the state and created the commission to examine whether improvements can be made to the way lethal injections are administered. The panel's report is due to be sent to Gov. Charlie Crist by March 1.

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