Wednesday, April 26, 2006

'Hippocratic Paradox'

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch issued a marvelous report on the problems with lethal injection executions. You can read the report here; we recommend it.

However, there is an interesting conundrum that comes out of the report. Human Rights Watch recommended abolishing the death penalty. However, should the death penalty not be abolished, the organization recommended convening a panel of experts (including medical doctors) to examine lethal injection protocols. Which, of course, would be a violation of medical ethics, because doctors inherently can't be in the business of recommending ways to kindly and nicely execute people. Here's a letter from one of the leading experts in the field that addresses this paradox. Because of the importance (and timeliness) of this issue, we present the letter in its entirety:

April 24, 2006
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

Dear Sir or Madam:
I am writing in response to the report on lethal injection ("So long as they die: Lethal injections in the United States") recently released by Human Rights Watch.

This report is a thorough account of the vast array of problems plaguing lethal injection executions in the United States. I applaud Human Rights Watch for the enormous effort researching this report.

I must, however, take issue with the report's recommendations. While I enthusiastically support the recommendation to abolish the death penalty, I am quite concerned with the other recommendations in the statements below:

"Review lethal injection protocols by soliciting input from medical and scientific experts, and by holding public hearings and seeking public comment"

"If the death penalty is not abolished, suspend all lethal injection executions until each state convenes a blue ribbon panel of medical, scientific, legal, judicial, and correctional experts authorized to review and recommend changes to lethal injection execution protocols as necessary to ensure the protocol adopted causes the inmate the least possible pain and suffering."

problem with these recommendations. The American Medical Association's opinion on capital punishment (opinion E-2.06) clearly states that:

"Physician participation in an execution includes, but is not limited to, the following actions: prescribing or administering tranquilizers and other psychotropic agents and medications that are part of the execution procedure; monitoring vital signs on site or remotely (including monitoring electrocardiograms); attending or observing an execution as a physician; and rendering of technical advice regarding execution."

While I do not claim to represent the AMA, I am quite confident that holding public hearings in which physicians testify about how to perform lethal injection properly, or creating a blue ribbon panel of physician experts to "recommend changes" in lethal injection procedures, would clearly constitute "rendering technical advice" and would be a violation of the AMA ethics guidelines.

To illustrate this point, on March 26, 2006, in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper story about lethal injection, I was quoted as saying, "Everybody agrees on every side of the execution issue that 5 grams of the sodium thiopental properly administered is fatal." The following day, I received a phone call from gentleman at the AMA in which he admonished me for making this statement, since rendering technical advice regarding executions violated AMA ethical guidelines.

It is my contention that the writers of the Human Right Watch report were trapped by what has been called the "Hippocratic Paradox," meaning that lethal injection is structured so that physicians must violate their fundamental ethical principles in order to "help" make the execution "humane." Thus, it becomes ethically impossible for physicians to become involved in lethal injection in any capacity, including endeavoring to make the protocols "better."

It is possible that the only way out of this dilemma is to abolish the death penalty, which is, after all, the HRW's strongest recommendation.

Jonathan I. Groner MD
Associate Professor of Surgery,
The OSU College of Medicine and Public Health
Trauma Medical Director
Children's Hospital

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A new take on the lethal injection debate

Interesting piece in the New Standard today:

Lethal Injection Debate Misses Bigger Point, Abolitionists Say
by Jessica Azulay

While heated deliberations rage over an execution method considered the "most humane" practiced today, those opposed to the death penalty altogether hope their side gains traction.

Apr. 25 – Mounting evidence that America's favored method for state-sponsored execution of prisoners may cause its victims excruciating pain has infused fresh rigor into at lease one narrow aspect of the death-penalty debate.

Defense attorneys and medical ethicists are squaring off against state executioners in a fight for judicial and public opinion on whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Meanwhile, many of the leading death-penalty abolition groups are staying above the fray, saying that rather than discussing how best to put people to death, the nation should be discussing whether to kill them at all.

To read the whole piece, and to see NCADP's and CUADP's quotes on the subject, go here.

(Hat tip, Scott at Ohio Death Penalty Information)

Monday, April 24, 2006

Klan leader almost hired as prison guard

Here's a scoop that you don't see every day. Mike Ward, a former colleague of mine and reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, broke the following in Sunday's editions:

A miscue that still troubles
Klan leader almost hired as prison guard
Mike Ward
Sunday, April 23, 2006
HUNTSVILLE — Five years later, they're still wondering how James Lee Roesch slipped in.

Roesch, then 20, was an aspiring Texas prison guard. He'd passed his background checks and was within weeks of graduation from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's spring training academy. He'd even volunteered to work on the tougher-than-nails East Texas prison that houses death row.

Then, he opened his mouth.

According to internal prison system documents obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, Roesch seemed to know too much about the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a notorious prison gang, during a presentation to his trainee class by a gang-enforcement officer.

He even bragged that "he had friends who were members of ABT and who had been in prison."

Prison investigators decided to dig deeper into Roesch's background.

What they found was a story that never has been publicly told: Roesch was the national Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, whose white separatist views had earned him national headlines and a rap sheet with Ohio authorities, two years before the prison system hired him.

Somehow, that hadn't turned up in prison officials' previous background checks, which included a search of state criminal history files with the Department of Public Safety. If it had, officials insist, Roesch would never have been hired in March 2001.

Before the prison system hired him, Roesch had been interviewed dozens of times by reporters, chronicling his fast rise to become head the Klan's old-school, hard-line Knights of the White Kamellia faction. His photo in Klan regalia had appeared in national magazines.

Police in Ohio — where he lived before moving to Jasper in 1999, just after the racially motivated dragging death there of James Byrd — had arrested him as a teenager for menacing another teenager with a handgun and for plastering posters to a tree that demanded: "Deport Niggers."

In one magazine interview in April 2000, Roesch even acknowledged pasting stickers on Byrd's gravestone in Jasper: "A Ku Klux Klansman Was Here."

On his application to become a prison guard, Roesch acknowledged the Ohio arrests for misdemeanor crimes — menacing and mutilation of a public tree. But apparently no one delved further, officials now privately concede, since misdemeanors do not automatically keep someone from being hired as a prison guard in Texas.

"It is my belief that Trainee Roesch may be associated with or have ties to Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and that he needs to be monitored for ABT activity," gang-enforcement officer Irma Fernandez wrote in a memo after meeting Roesch at a training session a few weeks after he was hired. "Trainee Roesch was informed that correctional officers are not to associate with ex-convicts. Roesch then corrected himself and said that he has not associated with them."

Roesch was interviewed by internal affairs investigators on April 12 and gave a written statement detailing his rise to power in the Klan, beginning at age 15 when he and a friend "started a little group called NWO (New White Order)." Ohio state police quickly filled in other details.

Roesch was let go four days later, officials said.

Roesch, who lived in the Woodville area at the time he was hired, could not be reached for comment last week.

Though investigators were unsettled that Roesch was even hired, another fact left them even more unsettled.

Just after he started his training, Roesch submitted a handwritten request to work in Livingston, where the prison that houses death row is located. There, two of the three men convicted of killing Byrd awaited execution.

Did he want to work on death row? And to what end?

Friday, April 21, 2006

60,000 and counting!

During the next 24 hours or so, this blog will receive its 60,000th visitor!

For returning visitors: thanks for continuing to stop by and we'll try to keep it interesting!

For first-time visitors: welcome and make yourself at home! If you oppose the death penalty and are interested in joining the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, please visit

If you're undecided on this issue, that's okay, too! The issue is best served when folks like you learn more about it. Jump on in; the water's fine!

And thank you, all of you, for allowing this blog to perhaps have some small but discernable impact on the abolition movement!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

And speaking of awards...

Earlier today we blogged on the Birmingham News, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for its series of editorials calling for an end to the death penalty in Alabama.

That blog reminded us that we forgot about another impressive award: Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle won the "Star Reporter of the Year" award, given by the Associated Press Managing Editors' Convention of Texas.

Olsen won for her two-part investigative series into the 1993 execution of Ruben Cantu. Cantu, the Houston Chronicle strongly suggested, was innocent of the crime for which he was executed. An investigation is ongoing, although the Bexar County district attorney seems to be dragging her feet a bit.

Congratulations, Lise and Houston Chronicle, for a job well done.

A prize worth fighting for

Alabama's Birmingham News was a finalist in this year's Pulitzer Prize competition for a series of editorials the newspaper published. The editorials pointed out flaws in Alabama's death penalty system (one of the worst in the nation) and called for repeal of death penalty statutes.

Editorial writer Robin DeMonia writes about the experience of almost -- but not quite -- winning a Pulitzer:

A prize worth fighting to win
Wednesday, April 19,

Monday was an exhilarating day here at The News - exhilarating and nerve-wracking. After weeks of rumors, the editorial page learned our death penalty series last year was a finalist for the biggest honor in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize.

Another paper, The Oregonian in Portland, won the award for editorial writing. But we were among the three finalists, which is no small thing. As my boss put it, it was the next best thing to winning a Pulitzer.

Sadly, the series met with less success in Alabama's legislative process than it did with the Pulitzer process.

Monday, as this year's Pultizer cycle was coming to an end, the Alabama Legislature was drawing its session to a close.

Not a single death penalty reform survived the session. Nothing to make the state's death penalty system more sensible. Nothing to make it more reliable. Nothing to make it more fair.

To read the entire column, go here.

Way to go, Birmingham News. Although you did not win the Pulitzer, you shined public light on a very important issue -- and reminded us all that a newspaper can demonstrate courage, leadership and inspiration.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

On dogs and dying

Columnist John Brummett from the Arkansas News Bureau has an interesting column today:
Overkill on death row

They were among my saddest days when we had our Labrador retrievers put to death, first Bubba, at 15, then Sissy, nearly 14.

But I remember wishing that, when my time came, I could go as they went.

In Bubba's case, a veterinarian with a special attachment to him came on a bright and mild spring April day to his backyard domain. She gave him a shot as he lay in the grass near the rock waterfall amid flowers. Before long he simply didn't breathe anymore. He had passed out of his misery and into our memory.

This was a far dearer soul than your garden-variety death row inmate. But there is a worthy argument emerging that says we should endeavor to treat death row inmates like dogs, which is to say as humanely, at least when we end their lives.

I recall when an Arkansas legislator argued for his bill to implement lethal injection in place of electrocution as the means for imposing the death penalty. He concluded by pleading, "Gentlemen, what I'm saying is that when you vote on this bill, try to act like human beings and not legislators."

Now, 2 decades later, judges across the country have begun looking favorably on death row appeals based on the charge that the way 35 states do lethal injection is, like the electric chair before it, needlessly cruel, even torturous. What once was considered a stalling tactic has come to be taken seriously.

The argument is that vets treat household pets much better, and that Oregon's assisted suicide law is based on the veterinary model, not the death chamber.

Our courts say the Constitution permits a death penalty. But our courts say the Constitution does not allow unusually cruel treatment. That is to say we seem to be under license to kill, but under mandate to do it painlessly.

In North Carolina, a judge said that a scheduled lethal injection could not proceed unless a doctor was present to make sure the three injections that actually compose the fatal process were handled properly. When the 3 shots aren't handled properly, it apparently is pure hell.

But the American Medical Association's code of ethics prohibits member participation in executions. Widespread imposition of such a physican-attended requirement would seem either to effectively end lethal injections or require the AMA to change its code.

This developing issue could force states to give death row inmates a single lethal dose of a long-lasting barbiturate, which is the standard veterinary practice.

But, to be frank, doctors can't really be sure that the single shot appearing so painless and peaceful in pets would be as painless and peaceful in the human brain. What we don't know about the central nervous system could fill libraries.

The three-step process used in prisons actually seems best in terms of being humane, I'm told, but only if done expertly. And postmortem evidence has shown that nonphysician technicians administering lethal injections in prison death chambers often make errors, and that if the first shot, a barbiturate, is not properly given, the paralyzing effect of the 2nd shot and the heart-stopping effect of the 3rd can be torture.

At its core, the issue seems to be what we might call overkill, literally.

Actually, that's not the core issue at all. The core issue is whether it's right for the state to take human life, period.

Our constant struggle with the fairness, equity and humanity of the death penalty suggests that we may not have the stomach for it that we think we do. It may be that we're re-evolving to the notion that killing as punishment without exercising unusual cruelty is a hopeless contradiction in terms.

I'll take my chances on what Bubba got, but, like Oregonians, only by my choice and only when the time comes.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Rude Pundit on Moussaoui

There's this wonderful post over at Rude Pundit on the ongoing Moussaoui trial. I can't post all of it here, because, even though Rude Pundit might be one of my more favorite blogs in the world, Abolish the Death Penalty is the official blog of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and there is some language over there that we can't use here.

But I will give you a taste. Here's one paragraph:
In essence, the prosecution's approach has been to take out a crowbar and beat the jurors bloody and unconscious until they can do nothing but drool and piss their acquiescence to the revenge that the government wants to enact on Moussaoui. The whole ridiculous, overemotional exercise of the prosecution has even been criticized by William F. Buckley. In his most recent column in his ongoing series "Clenched Patrician Anuses Can't Be Pried Open Even With Silver Spoons," Buckley barely moves his thin lips to say, "Thought renders unintelligible what the prosecution is up to in describing the luridities of 9/11 on Flight 93. The only explanation for what they are doing is that they are covert agents for the movie United 93, which is simultaneously going out from Hollywood."
To read the whole post (and remember: we warned you!) go here.

Who would Jesus kill?

Talk about a timely posting: Over at Kansas Death Penalty Focus, there's a posting about what that "eye for an eye" phrase in the Bible means. You can read it here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The absurdity of it all

Thanks to Talk Left (and to my friend Hedda for pointing this out to me):

John Farmer, former attorney general of New Jersey and a death penalty supporter, had this to say about the U.S. government's ridiculous decisiont to seek a death sentence for Moussaoui:
Through a perverse confluence, Mr. Moussaoui's interest in becoming something in death that he never was in life -- important -- has combined with the government's interest in executing someone for the 9/11 attacks. The likely result is an odd form of assisted suicide, in which Mr. Moussaoui will claim martyrdom as he is executed, and the United States will claim that the rule of law has been vindicated by bringing a terrorist to justice for 9/11.
To read the whole thing, go here.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Regarding mental illness

Mental illness is probably one of the diseases we understand the very least. Lots of people on death row are mentally ill -- either they got their way because of death row conditions or, more commonly, it was a form of mental illness that caused them to commit their crimes to begin with.

That's why the following letter to the editor, published in the Dallas Morning News today, caught my eye:

'You can't see mental illness'----I can't imagine world without my daughter
Re: "Unlike tumor, you can't see mental illness, but it's there," by SteveBlow, Wednesday Metro.

My heartfelt thanks to Mr. Blow for his comments on our culture's double standard about mental illness. As the parent of a mentally ill daughter, I have experienced the lack of understanding and support.

If you met her, you would have no idea of the pain, despair, search for services and long list of medications. I ache for the times she reads of the mistreatment of mentally ill people blamed for acts out of their control.

At the worst times, I have wished she had a visible illness so compassion, understanding and treatment would be available. Then I think about who she is, how much she has accomplished, how courageous she is when she has to explain her limitations to a stranger or ask for medical help.

I think of how sensitive she is to the needs of others and how much fun she can be. I think of the dreams she has realistically let go and the wonderful life she has built. I cannot imagine the world without her, justa s she is.

Elizabeth Francis, Richardson

Friday, April 07, 2006

Interesting new web site

Just got wind this morning of a fascinating and invigorating new web site. It's called "I Was In Prison" and it features articles by Dale and Susan Recinella of Florida. I've heard of these folks before, although I have never met them. They minister to people on death row as well as to the families of people being executed.

The website has an easy-to-remember URL.

It features a number of different articles and personal essays, such as one in which Dale had to witness the execution of a friend:
7:20 pm. We’ve been sitting in the witness room seats for one and a half hours – the longest wait in the history of Florida executions. In absolute silence, without motion or distraction. Staring at our own reflections in the window. Reflecting on the man who will be lying behind the closed curtain, stretched out on a gurney on the other side of the glass window.

Almost six years ago, I met that very angry man on death row. I wrote of our first meeting in “A Glimpse of Harvest” (March 9, 2000). During the ensuing weeks, months and years, we became friends, like brothers. He asked me to be his spiritual advisor if his death warrant were signed. Even the expected can be unexpected when it actually happens.

7:21 pm. Still waiting. I can see the reflections of the victims’ advocates and the survivors of the victim—tense with apprehension that a stay may be in the works. Superimposed over them are the reflections of the defense lawyers in the second row, tense with apprehension that a stay may not be granted. The two sets of images meld into a collage of our community, torn against itself by adversarial interests and homicidal violence, seeking redemption through an adversarial process that promises restoration through more homicidal violence.
You can read the entire piece here. Another outstanding essay is here and another here and yet another here. And you can sign up for email updates from this site by going to the front page.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

What do the death penalty and the Iraqi war have in common?

What the death penalty and the Iraqi war have in common is this: We will see a number of returning veterans suffer from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A very small percentage of them (yet nonetheless a significant number) will commit crimes that will lead them to death row.

In the four and a half years that I've been at NCADP I have seen a number of combat veterans executed. Some were veterans of the Vietnam war; others fought in the first Gulf war, when the U.S. drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

The reason I bring this up to today is that I noticed this post on daily kos:
An estimated fifty-thousand Americans will suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The sensorium of war will furnish the survivors with a lifetime's supply of guilt, delicately filed between reel after reel of ghastly snapshots recorded by the senses and replayed endlessly in the virtual cinema of the Mind. It may manifest itself as anxiety, chronic depression, substance abuse, or conduct disorders. These 'lucky' survivors will struggle with recurring images, sounds, and smells of dead men, women, and children. Even flashbacks of the living can haunt; the memory of an abandoned toddler spied through a smoking gun turret, bloody and wailing in a bullet chipped alley, too young to understand and too helpless to cope, can break a man or woman years later.

Some will manage, some will stumble and right themslves, some will need help, some will be driven over the edge by these demons. A few may take their own lives, a handful may become monsters and take the lives of others, each tragedy adding more casualties from this war, more lost, whose names will never be listed on a Department of Defense website or inscribed on a bronze plaque next to a memorial.
It's sad to think about, but it is also something to think about.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

mtvU Spring Break

Texas Moratorium Network has a short video clip up about the recent Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break, which took place in Austin. mtvU, a subsidiary of MTV, filmed the event. Go here to check it out!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Conference on innocence

Kate Raven, an intern with the ACLU of Northern California, dropped this off in my email inbox the other day:

On my first day as a Criminal Justice Policy Intern for the ACLU, I spoke with a dozen men and women who had been wrongfully imprisoned in this state. Many were on death row until their convictions were overturned. Although I had a general
idea of the facts of each case, nothing could have prepared me for the humanity and strength I heard in the voices at the other end of the line. Through their stories I began to feel the magnitude of the challenge facing us today, as we come to grips with a justice system that has mistakenly landed over 200 people in California in jail for murder, rape, and other serious felonies. That number, by the way, is just since 1990.

You can hear these remarkable men and women speak about their unjust imprisonment and their struggle for freedom at a conference hosted by UCLA, April 7-9th. This conference will facilitate the largest gathering of California’s exonereesever. In addition, new research discussing the causes and prevalence of wrongful conviction in California and demonstrating systemic racial and geographic disparities in the application of the death penalty in this state will be presented. Speakers include Judge Ken Starr, State Senator Gloria Romero, Barry Scheck (co-director of NY’s Innocence Project), and many others. You will be changed by what you hear.

Please visit for more information or to register.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

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Say hello to, Death Penalty Thailand. DPT looks at the death penalty in,of all places, Thailand & East Asia.