Tennessee death row inmates challenge execution method

AP News
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Posted: Jul 07, 2015 5:01 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — After more than a year of delays, a trial challenging Tennessee's method for executing prisoners began on Tuesday with an anesthesiologist suggesting that inmates given high doses of lethal injection drugs could spontaneously recover, although that was unlikely.

Dr. David Lubarsky, chief medical officer for the University of Miami health system and chair of the anesthesiology department, testified for several hours about how powerful anesthetics like pentobarbital work in the body. He expressed concerns about the ability of prison guards to administer lethal injections correctly and said there was a likelihood the drugs would spill into the surrounding tissue, causing painful caustic burns.

He also said a high dose of an anesthetic could put an inmate into a coma in which vital signs were difficult to detect and there was a possibility that an inmate could spontaneously recover from that state, although he did not think that was very likely to happen.

The trial comes just a week after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure, which uses different drugs than Tennessee but considered some of the same broad issues.

Assistant Attorney General Scott Sutherland said the high court's ruling means that to prevail in the Tennessee case, the 33 death row inmates must show lethal injection "creates a risk of severe pain and suffering and/or lingering death that is substantial when compared to known alternatives."

Sutherland said the Supreme Court has ruled inmates aren't guaranteed a painless death and execution is cruel and unusual only if it involves torture or the deliberate infliction of pain.

Tennessee's current lethal injection protocol uses the drug pentobarbital compounded by a pharmacist. Although Tennessee has yet to carry out an execution using compounded pentobarbital, Texas, Ohio and Georgia have had more than 30 successful and painless executions with the drug, Sutherland said.

Tennessee last executed a prisoner in 2009. Since then, legal challenges and problems obtaining lethal injection drugs have stalled new executions. In 2013 and 2014, state lawmakers tried to jump-start the process by moving from a three-drug lethal injection method to a one-drug method and reinstating the electric chair as a backup. But both of those changes brought new legal challenges, and all scheduled executions have been put on hold while those issues are sorted out.

Faced with similar challenges, Oklahoma enacted a law allowing execution by nitrogen gas as a backup to lethal injection. Utah reinstated the firing squad.