Documents reveal secrets behind execution process in Ohio, unsealed by Judge Burge
By JOE MILICIA
Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND, Dec. 28, 2007 (AP): Ohio begins the process of executing its death row inmates with the subtle fastening of a warden's jacket button.
The warden’s secret signal, which tells execution team members to begin administering the deadly drugs, is among the details of the state's execution procedures revealed in 632 pages of documents, some never before released.
Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge unsealed the documents Thursday.
The documents state that two members of the execution team are certified as emergency medical technicians, and at least one is nationally certified by a pathology board. But Jeffrey Gamso, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, sees nothing to convince him that the state can carry out executions in a humane manner.
``For someone to be executed without being tortured in Ohio is dumb luck,'' said Gamso, who represents two defendants challenging the lethal injection method.
The state has executed 26 inmates since it resumed putting prisoners to death in 1999. Difficulties with two executions over the last two years have critics challenging the lethal injection method as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
The state, which carries out executions at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, stands by its procedures.
``We believe our execution team members are well-trained and able to carry out the responsibilities they have when it comes to that specific assignment,'' Andrea Carson, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said Friday.
The state turned over the binder of documents two weeks ago to Burge, who will consider whether Ohio's execution method is unconstitutional.
Rubén Rivera and Ronald McCloud are challenging the lethal injection method, saying the drugs don't give the quick and painless deaths required by Ohio law. Each could receive death sentences if convicted in two separate Lorain County murders. A status conference on the lawsuit is scheduled for Jan. 8.
The documents, originally sealed by Burge at the request of the state, were released following a public records request from The (Elyria) Chronicle-Telegram and a letter from the newspaper's attorney. Burge ordered county Prosecutor Dennis Will to redact the names of execution team members in the copies given to the newspaper.
The state has been reluctant to say anything about who serves on the 16-member execution team and, particularly, the medical training received by the three members who prepare an inmate's veins and inject the drugs.
One document shows that a medical team member is certified by the American Society of Clinical Pathologists' Board of Registry. Redacted from the document is the kind of expertise the team member is certified. The organization handles certifications for numerous jobs in pathology and laboratory work, including hematologists, phlebotomists and those who work in blood banks, according to the society's Web site.
Another document shows that this year a team member attended 14 hours of ``Comprehensive Intravenous Therapy for Nurses.''
The state has conducted two executions in the past two years in which the execution team struggled to find suitable veins in the inmates' arms. One took nearly 90 minutes and the other two hours, taking so long the condemned killer was given a bathroom break.
Under correction department guidelines, medical team members are drawn from around the state and must be able, under Ohio law, to administer the intravenous drugs used in the lethal injection process.
Before they join the execution team, any would-be member must pass a rigorous screening process that includes a review of their record with the prison system, gain the approval of the warden and other prison officials and be confirmed by a vote of the current execution team members, according to the documents.
The team members practice once a week for four weeks before each execution, including preparation for handling inmates who physically resist.
Executioners train using an artificial arm that they inject with water, according to state documents.
Laurie Badzek, director of the American Nurses' Association's Center for Ethics and Human Rights, said nurses practice using artificial arms, but likely also would train on consenting patients.
If execution team members have enough training to avoid torturing an inmate with an IV they would be governed by medical ethics that rule out doing deliberate harm, said Dr. Jonathan I. Groner, professor of clinical surgery at the Ohio State University college of medicine and a critic of lethal injection.
``It's hard to have it both ways,'' he said by phone from New York City.
Groner discounted the value of using a mannequin to practice, especially for preparing to execute an inmate with a history of heroin abuse or one who is obese.
``Competence requires hands-on training using human beings in a supervised settings,'' he said.
The team members—three of whom have participated in all 26 executions—undergo training at least four times a year, according to the documents.
In addition to regular and pre-execution training, personnel on the execution team must keep their certifications on injecting intravenous drugs current. The documents turned over by the state reveal several booklets on administering drugs, including finding suitable veins, and how to handle the equipment used in the process.
In one document dealing with the 2006 execution of Darrell Ferguson—a ``volunteer'' who chose not to appeal his sentence beyond legal requirements—the team planned how to respond if Ferguson changed his mind after the first drug, a sedative, had begun to put him to sleep.