Missouri dismisses dyslexic executioner

The surgeon had been employed for lethal injection executions.
Wednesday, May 2, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:23 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

ST. LOUIS — The Missouri Department of Corrections has informed the appeals court considering the state’s lethal injection procedures that it will no longer use the services of a dyslexic surgeon for future lethal injection executions.

Alan Doerhoff of Jefferson City, who oversaw Missouri executions for years and is known in court records as John Doe I, has been at the center of the state’s lethal injection debate.

Lethal Injection

During a typical lethal injection, an inmate is given four intravenous injections of different chemicals: a harmless saline solution, the anesthetic sodium thiopental, the muscle relaxant pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Missouri stayed the execution of Michael Taylor, who challenged the method of lethal injection. Many other states have halted executions for similar challenges. Source: Dealth Penalty Information Center

He came under criticism after disclosing in testimony last year that he occasionally altered the amount of anesthetic given to inmates, and following media reports that he’d been sued for malpractice more than 20 times.

As recently as January, court documents and oral arguments before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis suggested the state hadn’t ruled out using Doerhoff for future executions.

But in an April 17 letter to the appeals court, Attorney General Jay Nixon wrote that he’d been informed by the Department of Corrections that it will no longer use Doerhoff’s services at executions.

“I am writing this letter to provide information that the Court may consider relevant to its decision in this appeal,” Nixon wrote.

A three-judge appeals court panel heard arguments Jan. 10 in the case brought by condemned killer Michael Taylor, who came within hours of being executed last year.

The court is weighing the state’s appeal of an order by U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. to reform Missouri’s lethal injection procedures, including the use of a doctor specializing in anesthesia.

Brian Hauswirth, Department of Corrections spokesman, wouldn’t say what prompted the announcement, only that the department “felt the timing was good.” Doerhoff was not employed by the department.

Doerhoff has denied that he has dyslexia, saying only that he sometimes transposes long numbers.

“We are confident and have been that (Doerhoff) can provide competent service, and we appreciate what he’s done,” Hauswirth said. “Because of what has transpired, we don’t think that using (him) is an option that is available to us.”

Taylor’s attorney Ginger Anders, in an April 24 letter to the court, responded by saying Doerhoff’s removal “does not cure the systemic problems afflicting Missouri’s lethal injection procedure.”

She cited “a litany of institutional failings” on the part of Corrections Department including the mechanism to deliver the lethal drugs, the department’s failure to perform the procedure consistently, and its “disregard” for safety.

“In the absence of any explanation of why (Doerhoff) is departing now, it would appear that the DOC simply hopes to lull the Court into thinking that its problems are now in the past,” Anders wrote.

Executions in Missouri have been on hold since last year as a court fight continues over Taylor’s claim that the lethal injection process is unconstitutionally cruel.

Last week, a report published by the online journal PLoS Medicine found that drugs used to execute prisoners in the U.S. sometimes fail to work as planned, causing slow and painful deaths that probably violate constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment.

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