Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Ohio pulled into executioner ID debate

COLUMBUS — Ohio has found itself in the cross hairs of the latest national debate over the death penalty: Should executioners’ identities be protected?

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio begged the question with a wide-ranging request for state records seeking information on the May 24 execution of an inmate whose veins took 90 minutes to find and whose death came a record-setting 16 minutes after the toxic drugs began to flow.
Among other things, the ACLU asked for the names of Christopher Newton’s execution team — a group of volunteer medics and guards whose identities are routinely shielded by the state.

Though the hooded executioner is so common as to be iconic, the ACLU and other death penalty opponents say they have new cause for seeking complete information on the people carrying out state-sanctioned deaths by injection.

They point to the case of Dr. Alan Doerhoff, a participant in Missouri’s execution process who was revealed in press reports to have been sued for malpractice more than 20 times.

They also point to the December execution of Angel Diaz in Florida. An autopsy found the needles were pushed through Diaz’s veins into the flesh of his arms, possibly limiting the effectiveness of the drugs. A commission created afterward to study the incident called for more training and better protocols for executioners.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the death penalty, said the public can’t properly scrutinize the effectiveness of capital punishment without adequate information on those carrying it out.

“Public executions should be as public as possible,” he said. “They supposedly have nothing to hide, and as with anything government does, it benefits from more scrutiny. For medical personnel, yes, there may be a cost. But that’s sort of like the cost that the state, or all of us, bear.”

Nonsense, said Michael Rushford, president of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif.

“The ACLU, which has staked out its turf as severely against the death penalty, will use this opportunity to out someone involved in an execution, and use it to put these people at risk,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s how important their cause is to them.”

Rushford said the American Medical Association has threatened to sanction doctors who assist in executions — because it is a violation of their oath to “first, do no harm.” So the push by death penalty opponents to make executioners’ names public, under the auspices of wanting to review their professional credentials, is meant to shrink the pool of willing volunteers and diminish the state’s ability to execute criminals.

“They (the ACLU) were against the gas chamber 30 years ago — they said there was only one humane alternative and that would be lethal injection,” he said. “Now they’re setting up this Catch-22, saying only a doctor can do that, and knowing the doctor’s association won’t let them do it.”

Executions in North Carolina have been temporarily halted after running into just such a hitch. State law that had simply required that a doctor be present during executions was taken further by a federal judge, who said the doctor needed to actively monitor the inmate for pain. Doctors faced disciplinary action by the state medical board for doing so, however, so the process is in limbo.

Missouri and California are caught up in similar legal battles over whether their states can be forced to involve doctors in executions who are prohibited by their profession’s code of conduct from facilitating a death. Though doctors do not currently participate in Ohio’s execution process, their role could also become an issue in the court battle also raging in this state.

Despite the obstacles they’ve faced, most states still balk at revealing the members of execution teams. Most notably, Missouri lawmakers passed a bill May 21 protecting the executioners’ anonymity and allowing them to sue anyone — including a news organization — who discloses their identity.

The Missouri prisons director has said the state welcomes public scrutiny of its lethal injection protocol and the education and work history of its execution team — just not the names and addresses of participants. Doerhoff’s services are no longer being used.

Dieter said he believes protecting the identity of executioners helps anesthetize the public to what takes place in the Death House.

“There is this distance that we want with the process,” he said. “That’s why lethal injection came about, sort of to give a more medicinal, antiseptic feel to it. Now it’s backfired in that it’s not working well.”

But Rushford said executioners have a job that will naturally subject them to attacks and deserve to be protected by government.

“The state should certainly monitor their background and training, but these people should be no more subject to ridicule than an abortion doctor who’s simply doing his job,” Rushford said. “The law should come down hard on anyone who uses someone’s legal profession to raise harm against them. It should be a hate crime.”

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