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Lethal injections under ethical, legal scrutiny at UR symposium

Panelists at a University of Richmond Law Review symposium Friday criticized lethal injection as a flawed and sometimes inhumane death penalty method plagued by transparency issues.

They discussed how the frequently used three-drug combination for lethal injection paralyzes the muscles so those being put to death can’t express pain they feel when the drugs are administered improperly.

Joel Zivot, a professor of anesthesiology at Emory University School of Medicine, explained that drugs are not made for killing, and that effective drugs are made through testing and patient feedback.

“The dead inmates can’t complain … there’s no verification process,” said Zivot, explaining why lethal injection will always be a flawed method for capital punishment.

He said medicine and doctors need to be removed from the death penalty. “I am not an expert in killing,” he said.

Currently, 32 states, including Virginia, have the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Lethal injection is the primary method of execution in every state.

Other panelists echoed Zivot’s concerns about lethal injection. The panelists all raised the issue of a lack of government transparency in the lethal injection process.

Eric Berger, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law, said many states withhold information about the lethal injection process, which he argued infringes on the inmates’ Eighth Amendment right to legally fight against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Secrecy is proven to be a successful litigation strategy,” Berger said.

Panelist Deborah W. Denno, a law professor at Fordham University’s School of Law, said she believes death by firing squad is more humane than lethal injection. Berger suggested that supporters of the death penalty support lethal injection because it appears to be a bloodless and humane method. Zivot echoed that argument.

“The cruelty of it all has been hidden from you, but I assure you the cruelty is there,” Zivot said.

The event at the University of Richmond also included discussions about the politics and future of the death penalty. Among the panelists was Frank Green, a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who has witnessed about a dozen executions as a media representative.

Former Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley said his perspective on criminal justice changed from punitive to rehabilitative after working with prisoners as the president of the Prison Fellowship. As a state senator, Earley said he fought for tougher sentencing, abolishing parole and lowering the age of juveniles who are tried as adults. Now, he supports diverting nonviolent offenders and people with drug problems to rehabilitation programs.

“I see the second half of my life as correcting what I did with the first half of my life,” said Earley, a panelist for Friday’s discussion on the politics of the death penalty.

He said many prisoners he met in crowded prisons had mental health or substance abuse problems. He recalled one visit in western Michigan, when he saw a whole wing of the prison dedicated to heavily medicated prisoners with visible mental health problems. He said he thought at the time, “This is not the place for them.”

Chuang@timesdispatch.com






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