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January 27, 2010

Speak now

I arrived at the prison just after midnight on May 9, 2007. As a reporter in Nashville at the time, I was one of seven media representatives in Tennessee selected to witness the execution of an inmate by lethal injection.

We checked our personal belongings — including notebooks and pens — at the security station. In turn, prison officials provided us with a legal pad and a No. 2 pencil.

Waiting inside a cinderblock room, we watched the clock as the minutes passed. The execution was scheduled to commence at 1 a.m., and it was already quarter after.

Blinds hanging on a set of windows separating the media room from the execution chamber were closed, preventing us from observing the preparations under way.

What was going on in there? We, the journalists selected to document the execution, had no idea. That’s because Tennessee — like Kentucky — prevents witnesses from watching what unfolds in the execution chamber until the moment they are ready to push the lethal drugs.

At 1:20 a.m., two men raised the blinds and exited the room. In the middle of the chamber, the condemned inmate lay strapped to a gurney. An IV line in his right arm traveled across the room and through a tiny hole in the wall. On the other side of that wall, the execution team was set to administer a cocktail of three chemicals: the first, sodium thiopental, a barbiturate often used in hospitals before a stronger anesthetic is given; the second, pancuronium bromide, a paralyzing agent that veterinarians are prohibited from using on animals; the third, potassium chloride, a poison found in road salt that stops the heart.

Given the inmate was paralyzed due to the second chemical, there was little to report once the blinds were raised. We stared intently, searching for the slightest movement, but there was nothing, other than a subtle change in his color. Seventeen silent minutes passed before the warden declared the execution complete.

Just months after that execution, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider whether lethal injection is a cruel and unusual form of punishment. A nationwide moratorium on the death penalty took effect pending a decision on the challenge, brought by Kentucky inmates Ralph Baze and Thomas C. Bowling. The pair claimed the three-drug procedure has the potential to subject prisoners to excruciating yet undetectable pain.

Seven months later, the Supreme Court issued a 7-2 ruling upholding Kentucky’s lethal injection method. Executions resumed across the United States, with one Kentucky inmate — Marco Allen Chapman — being put to death since then.

In November, it appeared Kentucky’s relatively slow pace of executions (three in as many decades) was set to pick up speed after state Attorney General Jack Conway asked the governor to sign three death warrants.

Just two days later, however, the Kentucky Supreme Court suspended capital punishment in the commonwealth until the public has an opportunity to comment on the state’s execution protocol, as required by law (although ignored until now). In response, the state released the written execution procedures, which had long remained shrouded in secrecy.

So where we are now?

On Friday, the manner in which the state carries out executions will be debated publicly for the first time. At this point, the Department of Corrections says it’s too late to sign up to speak at the hearing in Frankfort, although written comments will be accepted — via mail — until 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 1. State officials are required not only to review each comment, but also to provide a thorough response.

The 72-page execution manual is filled with mundane information about the hours leading up to the execution. Remarkably, it’s the absence of key details about the process that merits comment.

One glaring omission is the lack of information about how the inmate is readied for lethal injection. The fact that the media is not allowed to watch what happens before the blinds are raised withholds crucial information from the public. Take, for example, the attempted execution of Ohio inmate Rommell Broom in October. Prison personnel spent two hours trying to insert an IV, sticking him 18 times. Finally, the governor halted the execution, which remains on hold pending the outcome of further appeals.

As long as capital punishment continues in this country, the public has a right to know — at the very least — if the executions being carried out in their name are being botched.

For more on the protocol and how to submit comments, visit www.KCADP.org

Tagged: Editor’s Note |