LethalInjection 04-08

Witness attacks constitutionality of Ohio’s lethal injection policy, says unfit even for pets

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Associated Press Writer


ELYRIA, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s lethal injection method was assailed as unfit for even household pets by an anesthesiologist testifying in a case challenging the constitutionality of the procedure.

The three-drug cocktail would cause agonizing pain if the anesthetic isn’t properly administered, and the state’s procedure for executions doesn’t protect against that happening, according to an expert witness hired by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

"The way lethal injection is being done in Ohio does not comport with what is being done for euthanizing of animals," Dr. Mark Heath said Monday. "It falls way below that standard."

The state will get its turn to present an expert on Tuesday, when Dr. Mark Dershwitz, an anesthesiologist from Massachusetts, was expected to testify via video conference that he believes the process is humane.

Heath, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University, said it’s possible to perform lethal injection on prisoners in a humane manner, but that Ohio’s method falls below the standard for euthanizing household pets.

Heath testified on behalf of Ronald McCloud and Ruben Rivera, who are accused of separate murders and could receive death sentences if convicted. The two men say the state’s lethal injection procedure doesn’t give the quick and painless deaths required by state law.

In Ohio, difficulties in recent years with two executions, in which the execution team struggled to find suitable veins in inmates’ arms, brought complaints that the method is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. Ohio officials stand by the procedure.

Lethal injections are on hold nationally while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge in a case from Kentucky, which is among the roughly three dozen states, like Ohio, that administer three drugs in succession to sedate, paralyze and kill prisoners.


The major criticism of the three-drug execution procedure is that the inmate could suffer excruciating pain from the final two drugs if the executioner administers too little anesthetic or makes mistakes injecting it.

Heath testified that the design of Ohio’s death house, where executions take place, is problematic because the inmate and the person administering the drugs are in different rooms separated by a one-way mirror.

Anesthesiologists always administer drugs while standing next to the patient so they can detect if problems occur, such as a leak or a ruptured vein, Heath said. He also warned drugs could go into tissue instead of a vein.

Other problems that could occur include catheters coming out of veins, kinks in the IV tubing and errors in the mixing of the anesthetic — sodium thiopental — which is sold in powder form.

During a contentious cross examination from Assistant Prosecutor Tony Cillo, Heath testified that he is personally opposed to the death penalty in whatever form it’s carried out. Heath, who has testified about lethal injection in 11 states, also said he has not found an acceptable method for lethal injection in any state.

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