Saturday, 12 January 2008

Execution nurse's criminal past


Execution nurse's criminal past

Before a Missouri executioner could go to Indiana in 2001 to help federal
authorities put mass killer Timothy McVeigh to death, he had to take care
of one detail:

He needed permission from his probation officer to leave the state.

The request, by a licensed practical nurse from Farmington, set off alarms
within the Missouri Division of Probation and Parole. At least one
supervisor spoke out to an agency administrator.

"As I stated to you previously, it seems bizarre to me that we would
knowingly allow an offender, on active supervision, to participate in the
execution process at any level," she wrote. Advertisement

But that memo and others obtained by the Post-Dispatch show that
high-level federal and state corrections officials did let the nurse make
the trip and continue to work on Missouri's lethal-injection team.

The use of someone with such legal troubles two felonies plea-bargained
down to misdemeanors for stalking and tampering with property raises
further questions about the expertise and backgrounds of the people the
government entrusts to carry out the ultimate punishment.

That punishment is already on hold in 35 states and in the federal system
while the U.S. Supreme Court considers arguments in a Kentucky
lethal-injection case. Lawyers for the condemned say the process is open
to mistakes that could inflict extreme pain, in violation of the Eighth
Amendment protection from cruel or unusual punishment.

A 36th state, New Jersey, became last month the first in more than 40
years to abandon capital punishment because of wide-ranging concerns. One
more state uses only the electric chair.

Court challenges have attacked not only the three-drug lethal-injection
sequence but also the ability of executioners to get it consistently
right. Indeed, incidents in Ohio and Florida show that mistakes have been

In federal court in Kansas City in 2006, the doctor who developed
Missouri's procedure and supervised 54 executions testified anonymously
that he was dyslexic, had problems with numbers and knowingly varied doses
of the lethal drugs by as much as half.

A Post-Dispatch investigation identified him as Dr. Alan Doerhoff, a
surgeon from Jefferson City who had provided inmate care in Missouri
prisons. The newspaper also revealed that he had been sued for malpractice
at least 20 times, had his privileges revoked at 2 hospitals, had made
false statements in two court cases and had been publicly reprimanded by
the state Board of Healing Arts for hiding his malpractice litigation

Doerhoff also was part of the federal government's execution team,
according to court filings last year in a federal death penalty appeal.

Missouri prison officials have long complained about their difficulty in
finding qualified medical professionals to work at executions.
Complicating matters is that most medical professional organizations,
notably the American Medical Association, specifically ban their members
from participating.

Critics say that creates pressure for death chambers to use whomever they
can get.


Unlike the situation with Doerhoff, no one has publicly questioned the
competence of the nurse David L. Pinkley, 45 as a member of the
execution team. Memos from the probation and parole division describe his
"special knowledge, skills and abilities" as "one of a kind."

His nursing license is unblemished. He works in the surgical department at
Mineral Area Regional Medical Center in Farmington. From 1986-89, he was a
psychiatric aide for the state at the Farmington State Hospital.

It is unclear when he began working on state executions, or how many he
did. The memos show he was recommended by the warden at the Potosi
Correctional Center for the federal execution team, put in place in 2000.

In 1998, Pinkley was charged with felony aggravated stalking and
first-degree tampering with property after he was accused of threatening a
man and repeatedly vandalizing his vehicle and home over a relationship
the man was having with Pinkley's estranged wife.

Between August and the year's end, the victim reported to police that his
truck's windshield and headlights had been smashed and it had been
spray-painted and scratched. He accused Pinkley of backing over his
mailbox and returning to damage it again, smashing 5 windows at his house
and breaking his daughter's bedroom window. He alleged that Pinkley had
left voice messages threatening violence against him and his family.

A police report says the victim played one of the messages for a St.
Francois County sheriff's deputy: "I'll burn your (expletive) house down
and blow your (expletive) head off!"

Pinkley maintained in court that he did not stalk anyone or cause any
damage, but he pleaded no contest in St. Francois County to misdemeanor
counts of stalking and tampering with property. He paid the victim $750
and was ordered to serve two years of supervised probation.

The judge gave him a "suspended imposition of sentence," a special
disposition that sealed the record of the conviction after completion of
his probation.

He has no other known criminal record.


The memos obtained by the Post-Dispatch say state and federal officials
were aware of Pinkley's conviction and probation status and wanted to use
him anyway.

The probation division supervisor who raised concerns, in the February
2001 memo, wrote that when Pinkley first asked to travel to the U.S.
penitentiary in Terre Haute in June 2000, he showed her a business card
from the penitentiary's warden, Harley G. Lappin.

The supervisor wrote that she called the federal prison and told an acting
warden about Pinkley's probation status and "he seemed alarmed, and
informed me he secured the services of this individual, as recommended by
authorities at Potosi Correctional Center. ..."

She also told the warden at Potosi, then home of the Missouri execution
chamber, who, she said, "seemed alarmed, not knowing the offender was on

When she checked Pinkley's file in January 2001, the supervisor wrote, she
learned that he already had been approved for five trips to Indiana the
previous year.

In an April 2001 memo, the administrator wrote that Pinkley's request had
been reviewed all the way up through Dora Schriro, then director of the
Missouri Department of Corrections, and that "federal authorities have
apparently done the same thing."

The paperwork reflects Pinkley's explanation that he would be
administering McVeigh's lethal injection. It is not clear whether he did,
although his permits to travel to the Indiana prison included May 30 to
June 30, 2001; McVeigh was executed that June 11.

Lappin, now director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, did not respond to
a phone call and e-mail request for comment. An agency spokeswoman
declined to comment.

Schriro, who now directs the Arizona corrections system, said through a
spokesman that she did not remember the situation with Pinkley.

Pinkley did not reply to repeated phone messages left at the hospital
where he works and with his mother. Approached outside work, he walked
away from a reporter and drove off without taking questions.

Larry Crawford, the corrections department director, declined to discuss
Pinkley by name. He said that the time span was before his tenure and that
the relevant court records which he said were about a "minor" misdemeanor
were sealed.

The director also said there were people with traffic and minor
misdemeanor convictions among the 11,000 prison employees and additional
contract workers. One misdemeanor wouldn't prevent "a doctor or nurse from
working in our facility or any other hospital anywhere in the country,''
he said.

Missouri was "diligent" in using medical personnel to assist with
executions even though it had no obligation to do so, Crawford said. He
emphasized that prison staff, not medical people, pushed the drug


Had either Doerhoff or Pinkley merely pulled a lever on a gallows, the
doctor's competence and the nurse's criminal record might not be at issue.

But modern chemical execution carries a risk of excruciating pain, say
lawyers who drove the issue to a test last week before the U.S. Supreme

Thirty-five of the 36 states that still have the death penalty, as well as
the federal government, use the three-drug series developed in the 1970s
as a more humane successor to methods that in various places included the
gas chamber, electric chair, noose or firing squad.

But it has its own critics, including veterinarians, who say it is
unsuitable to euthanize animals, and its inventor, who has said he has
qualms about non-doctors administering the chemicals.

Dosing is critical, say defense lawyers. They argue that if the sedative
1st drug doesn't work, the paralytic effect of the respiration-stopping
2nd drug could make it impossible for the condemned to communicate
excruciating pain from the cardiac arrest caused by the 3rd.

Court challenges have revealed that several states use poorly trained
personnel, some with little or no medical background, to give the

The process is not simple. It requires the insertion of a catheter into
the bloodstream and precise doses of drugs that arrive at the prison as
powder and must be mixed.

In December 2006, Florida's team needed 37 minutes, instead of the usual
15, to execute Angel Nievas Diaz. Nievas Diaz appeared to grimace and gasp
for breath on the gurney, according to news accounts. An autopsy found
that hypodermic needles had been pushed all the way through blood vessels
into soft tissue, causing chemical burns on both arms.

In Ohio in May 2006, an execution was delayed 90 minutes while team
members struggled to find a suitable vein as the condemned man, Joseph
Lewis Clark, raised his head from the gurney and shouted, "It don't work
... it ain't working."

Kent Scheidegger, executive director of the pro-death penalty Criminal
Justice Legal Foundation, blames the "medicalization" of the death penalty
for the latest court battles.

He proposed bringing back the poison gas chamber a method pushed aside in
Missouri and other states for the lethal injection but using a gas that
causes less pain than the traditional cyanide.

"Any fool can turn a valve," he said. "You'd have a much broader pool of
people to select from because you wouldn't need anyone with medical

"If you are determined that you need licensed professionals involved,
you're going to have the problem that very few are willing to do it," he

As for employing a convicted stalker to perform executions, he said, "It
would be better not to have someone with that kind of history involved."

He added that by relying on the few medical professionals who were willing
to participate, Missouri and the Federal Bureau of Prisons were "trying to
do it right, and I don't criticize them for doing it right."


In Missouri, a federal judge suspended the state's executions in 2006
after Doerhoff's testimony from behind a screen to protect his identity
that he was dyslexic, did not record the actual amount of anesthetic
delivered, sometimes used only half the suggested dose and gauged the
depth of the anesthesia by watching facial expressions through a window.

Doerhoff testified that he knew of no written protocol and that he changed
it freely at his own discretion.

State Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said last week that after reading
the Post-Dispatch story about Doerhoff in July 2006, he came away
"appalled" by the doctor's record and qualifications.

He said the Department of Corrections had "been very lax" in screening
potential executioners, but noted that it had new quality controls.

And if someone on the state's execution team has a criminal record, he
said, "I don't mind that coming out."

Engler was the Senate sponsor of a Missouri law enacted last year to
protect the identities of current or former executioners and make it
easier for them to seek civil damages if their names are exposed.

"Those are people living in my district, doing their jobs," he said. "It's
unfair to release their names so people" could harass or harm them.

The law was passed in response to the Post-Dispatch's naming of Doerhoff.

Richard C. Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information
Center, a nonprofit research group opposed to the death penalty, said,
"There is a tradition of anonymity for executioners, but until now it
wasn't necessary to know how it's being done."

"The people administering the injection their qualifications are partly
what is in question. In order to test (their qualifications) you need to
know who they are."

Dieter said he was shocked that Pinkley "had these problems and then was
being given responsibility for a very sensitive, nationally important
federal (execution)."

"He may be good, he may not be. But you don't allow people who are on
probation, for violence, in the execution chamber or anywhere near it."

That officials signed off on his participation was "incompetence," Dieter
said. "You avoid people like that despite the fact that they might have
some skill. There's just too much risk. Is this the best way to carry out
something so serious as taking a human life? Even that of McVeigh?"

Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor and expert on capital
punishment methods, said Pinkley's involvement was "shocking on numerous

Given revelations about Doerhoff and Pinkley, said Denno, "It suggests
security is not the reason for not revealing their identities. They have
other reasons, and the reasons are that these people have troubled
behavioral and emotional histories."


Several states have laws keeping the identity of executioners confidential
and exempt from public-record laws.

In Florida, the doctor who oversaw the botched Nievas Diaz execution
testified by speaker phone before a state commission on lethal injection,
but did so anonymously with his voice altered.

Missouri's new law took it a step further.

It was written by Department of Corrections lawyers, said Rep. Danielle
Moore, R-Fulton, a member of a joint committee that oversees the
department, and who sponsored the bill in the House.

"The DOC wants to be able to hire the most qualified and the best doctors
for this lethal injection, to administer lethal gas or chemicals," said
Moore. "Therefore, if anonymity is offered to the execution team, then the
very best doctors would, hopefully, feel that they could serve in that

Crawford, the corrections director, said it had been "extremely difficult"
to find medical help for executions. But he said the Post-Dispatch story
naming Doerhoff actually helped the department make connections with
medical professionals who felt executions "ought to be done right."

Moore said her committee regularly toured prisons and inquired about every
aspect, including executions.

"Trust me, we ask all these questions. Who is now serving on the team? We
ask questions about everything."

Moore said she didn't know the department had used a convicted stalker as
an executioner until asked about it by the Post-Dispatch.

"It's never come up, and I've never even thought about it," she said. "I
can't imagine that the DOC would choose someone in that capacity."

She seemed taken aback. "I'm writing this down. A member of an execution
team who was on probation for stalking. ... I am going to be making some
inquiries for sure."

She added: "If it is true, it would give me grave concern. Because,
frankly, I didn't know anyone who was on probation would be allowed to
work in the DOC."

McVeigh, whose bomb killed 168 people including 19 children in a federal
building in Oklahoma City in 1995, was the 1st federal death row inmate to
be executed in 38 years.

The bureau assembled an execution team and developed a protocol using the
same 3-drug injection used by other states.

The Missouri probation and parole administrator who confirmed Pinkley's
request for travel obviously recognized the potential for controversy.

In one of the memos, she wrote, "It would be extremely problematic for
David Pinkley and this department if the media got wind of this."

(source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

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