Georgia’s secret lethal injection protocols not always so mysterious

110921 Jackson : The front of the prison had plenty of security on hand Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011 as Lawyers for Troy Davis, Stephen Marsh and Danielle Garten were turned away at the Georgia Diagnostic Prison trying to gain access to give a polygraph test to Troy Davis before he is scheduled to be executed Wednesday night. "Mr. Davis believes he is innocent and he wants to show it," Stephen Marsh, one of Davis' lawyers, said. "We hope he'll be allowed this opportunity." Davis, who has always maintained his innocence, sits on death row for the 1989 murder of off-duty Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail. The state Board of Pardons and Paroles denied him clemency early Tuesday. He is set to be put to death by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Marsh said Davis' legal team has yet to be cleared by the Department of Corrections to have the test administered Wednesday. Davis also wants some assurance from the parole board that it will take his test into consideration, Marsh said. "He's not going to spend three hours away from his family on what could be the last day of his life if this does not make any difference," the Washington attorney said. "We're obviously very disappointed with the board's decision," Marsh added. John Spink, jspink@ajc.com

Executions take place at the Georgia Diagnostic Prison in Jackson. John Spink, jspink@ajc.com

 

Kelly Renee Gissendaner. HANDOUT PHOTO FROM GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

Kelly Gissendaner is scheduled to be executed Tuesday.

Georgia plans to execute Kelly Gissendaner Tuesday, but many details of the lethal injection are top secret. Under a 2013 state law, Georgia corrections officials don’t have to publicly identify the manufacturer of the execution drug, the compounding pharmacist who mixes the solution, or much of anything else.

Georgia’s lethal injections weren’t always so secretive. In 2007, the state’s chief medical examiner testified in open court about all the drugs then used for executions, the dosages, and the effects on the condemned prisoner.

Dr. Kris Sperry was an expert witness for the state of Florida when a death row inmate challenged that state’s execution protocols after the botched lethal injection of another prisoner.

When Florida executed Angel Diaz in December 2006, the procedure took a remarkable 34 minutes. The intravenous line that was supposed to feed the drugs into Diaz’s bloodstream apparently was not properly inserted. The drugs leaked into the muscles of his arm and took far longer than usual to put him to death.

The following day, anticipating a challenge from the next inmate scheduled for execution, Florida’s attorney general hired Sperry – who frequently moonlights as an expert witness in forensic pathology – to help defend the state’s procedures.

diaz

Angel Diaz

In a hearing in Ocala, Florida, in July 2007, Sperry testified that Florida and Georgia used the same combination of drugs for lethal injection. The only difference, he said, was that Florida used heavier doses that would kill an inmate faster.

The recipe for the lethal “cocktail,” according to a transcript of Sperry’s testimony:

  • Thiopental sodium, also known as pentobarbital. Florida administered 5 grams, while Georgia used 2, Sperry said. Any dosage of more than 400 milligrams would leave a person unconscious and in “respiratory depression,” he said. “The brain would forget to breathe.”
  • Pancuronium bromide. Florida’s cocktail contained 100 mg, compared to Georgia’s 50. Either dosage, Sperry said, would cause “virtually instantaneous” paralysis and prevent a person from breathing. In combination with the first drug, he said, “the person would be unable to perceive any kind of paralysis because they would have been rendered unconscious.”
  • Potassium chloride. This drug – at Florida’s dosage of 240 milliequivalents or Georgia’s of 120 – would cause “instantaneous cessation or stoppage of the heart,” Sperry said.
lightbourne_ian_deco

Ian Deco Lightbourne

The entire cocktail, Sperry said, would result in “a humane and painless death.”

The judge upheld Florida’s execution plan. But the inmate, Ian Deco Lightbourne, who now calls himself Ish’od Gi’hon, sentenced to death for a 1981 murder, remains on death row, his appeals continuing.

Gissendaner, convicted of conspiring to murder her husband in 1997, is still appealing, too, of course, but with far less detail about the execution process than Lightbourne had.

 

 

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Filed under Crime stories, Death penalty, Prisons

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