Anesthesiologist joins Missouri’s execution team

Sunday, May 25, 2008 | 4:35 p.m. CDT; updated 3:28 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

KANSAS CITY — The state of Missouri has added an anesthesiologist to its team that will carry out executions, despite professional guidelines against doctors taking part in executions.

The doctor’s presence on the team was revealed in a federal court case brought by several death row inmates concerning the qualifications and training of Missouri’s execution team members, The Kansas City Star reported Sunday. Citing the ongoing litigation, attorneys for the death row inmates said they could not comment.

The Missouri Department of Corrections will not reveal the doctor’s name or role on the team. Department of Corrections officials also declined to comment, except to say that the team’s doctor and two nurses “will perform the duties assigned to them in the DOC’s lethal injection protocol.”

With its execution team apparently in place, the state is ready again to execute condemned prisoners when the state Supreme Court issues the order. Missouri has not set any execution dates, but the attorney general has asked the state Supreme Court to schedule them for 14 inmates.

The team’s duties include preparing the chemicals, inserting intravenous lines, monitoring the prisoner and supervising the injection of chemicals by corrections employees, all of which violate the American Medical Association’s policy against physician participation in executions. The American Society of Anesthesiologists has adopted the AMA’s position.

“It is a fundamental and unwavering principle that anesthesiologists, consistent with their ethical mandates, cannot use their art and skill to participate in an execution,” the society stated in a brief it filed last year in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The AMA first adopted its ethical stance in 1980. Its current policy states:

“A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.”

Neither group has the power to discipline a doctor who does not comply with the ethics policy.

“The good news is that if the anesthesiologist is qualified such involvement should heighten the likelihood that lethal injections will be carried out humanely,” said death penalty expert Deborah Denno, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law.

“On the other hand, the anesthesiologist who has volunteered in Missouri is violating the ethical prohibitions of his or her profession, and attorneys should be entitled to investigate why such a physician would be willing to do that.”

The issue drew attention to Missouri in 2006 when the surgeon who previously oversaw the state’s executions testified in another court case that he was dyslexic and sometimes transposed numbers.

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