"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Friday, June 24, 2011

Georgia executes Roy Willard Blankenship

Roy Willard Blankenship
JACKSON, Ga. (AP) - A prisoner who was executed Thursday for killing an elderly Savannah woman more than three decades ago appeared to grimace and jerk as he became the first person put to death in Georgia with a drug that the state had not used before.

Roy Willard Blankenship jerked his head several times throughout the procedure and muttered after the pentobarbital was injected into his veins. The 55-year-old's breathing and movements slowed within minutes, and he was pronounced dead at 8:37 p.m.

He was executed for the 1978 murder of Sarah Mims Bowen, who died of heart failure after she was sexually assaulted in her Savannah apartment. Before the procedure began, Blankenship stammered and then told the warden "I hope to see you again."

Blankenship's attorneys claimed in court filings that pentobarbital was unsafe and unreliable, and his attorney Brian Kammer warned that using the drug as the first part of a three-drug combination would risk needless pain and suffering for the condemned man.

State attorneys countered that the claims were unfounded, and said the drug had been used in more than a dozen executions by other states that switched from sodium thiopental amid a nationwide supply shortage. The Georgia Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court agreed Thursday, rejecting Blankenship's last-ditch appeals.

Blankenship's supporters also asked the state medical board to revoke the license of Dr. Carlo Musso, who participated in the execution Thursday. The complaint claimed Musso ran afoul of the law by importing sodium thiopental from overseas manufacturers without first registering with state regulators and that he later sold the drugs to officials in Tennessee and Kentucky.

Musso said in a statement released to The Associated Press late Thursday that he is being singled out for "political purposes" and urged critics of the death penalty not to specifically target him. The statement did not directly address the allegations.

"When they fail to make progress with policymakers, groups opposed to capital punishment continue to attack physician licensure as a method to end lethal injection as form of execution," he said.

Blankenship's execution was under close scrutiny by state attorneys, death penalty defense lawyers and other observers. He was laughing and chatting with a prison chaplain in the moments before his execution, at one point trying to converse with the observers sitting behind a glass window.

As the injection began, he jerked his head toward his left arm and made a startled face while blinking rapidly. He soon lurched to his right arm, lunging with his mouth agape twice. He then held his head up, and his chin smacked as he mouthed words that were inaudible to observers.

Within three minutes, his movements slowed. About six minutes after the injection began, a nurse checked his vital signs to ensure he was unconscious before the execution could continue. He was pronounced dead nine minutes later. His eyes never closed.

Death penalty critics said Blankenship's movements were proof that Georgia shouldn't have used pentobarbital to sedate him before injecting pancuronium bromide to paralyze him and then potassium chloride to stop his heart.

"It is unconscionable that Georgia would experiment with untested and potentially harmful drugs on a human being," said Kathryn Hamoudah of Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which opposes capital punishment.

Prosecutors had sought Blankenship's execution for more than 30 years. He was sentenced to death three times in Bowen's killing.

Her bloody, nude body was discovered by friends and neighbors after the attack, and police were able to trace footsteps to the area where Blankenship lived across the street. They also matched blood scrapings and seminal fluid to Bowen.

At his 1980 trial, Blankenship told jurors that he broke into Bowen's house and tried to rape her but then bolted when she appeared to wake. He said she was still clothed when he left, and she hadn't been beaten up.

The jury didn't buy his account and he was sentenced to die, but the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the sentence a year later. He was re-sentenced to death in 1982, but that sentence was also reversed when the court ruled that Blankenship's attorneys were restricted from presenting key evidence.

He was again sentenced to die in 1986, but this time state and federal courts upheld the capital sentence.

After his execution was scheduled earlier this year, the Georgia pardons board granted him a temporary reprieve in February to allow for more DNA testing. But it rejected his appeal in June after the tests returned inconclusive.

Georgia joins a growing number of states that have begun using pentobarbital in executions. Many of the nation's 34 death penalty states switched to pentobarbital or began considering a switch after Hospira Inc., the sole manufacturer of sodium thiopental in the U.S., said in January it would no longer make the drug.

But Georgia has been under particular scrutiny after Drug Enforcement Administration regulators seized the state's stockpile of sodium thiopental amid questions about how it had obtained the supply. Court records show the state bought the drug from Dream Pharma, a London company. Inmates' attorneys have called it a fly-by-night supplier that operates from the back of a driving school.

Blankenship becomes the 2nd condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Georgia and the 50th overall since the state resumed capital punishment in 1983.

Blankenship becomes the 24th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1258th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977. The death penalty had been re-legalized in the USA on July 2, 1976.

Source: AP, Rick Halperin, June 24, 2011


Evidence that Georgia’s first pentobarbital execution was botched is a warning for other states

Reports suggest that the first execution carried out in Georgia using pentobarbital may have been botched, with the prisoner experiencing severe pain as a result of a failure to properly anaesthetise him.

According to the Associated Press, Roy Willard Blakenship grimaced during the process, and kept his eyes open throughout. These indications that he may have remained conscious – and therefore would have suffered severe pain as the process continued – have recently been seen in botched executions using other anaesthetics which have not been properly assessed or tested.

However, this is the first time that such evidence has been seen in an execution carried out using the barbiturate pentobarbital (also known as Nembutal), which has recently been adopted by a large number of states and has so far been used in 17 executions.

The news should raise concerns around the execution process in the eight US states that have already carried out executions using it, and the many others that are planning to do so.

Recent domestic shortages of the anaesthetic sodium thiopental have forced US death rows to look elsewhere for execution drugs. At first many states turned to imported sodium thiopental from the UK and India, but concerns over its effectiveness mean many have now switched to pentobarbital. However, this latest development suggests that using this drug could also leave prisoners at risk of unnecessary pain and suffering during executions – potentially breaching the US Constitutional ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment’

Source: Reprieve, June 24, 2011


Medical experts divided over Georgia execution

A day after a prisoner appeared to struggle as a lethal injection drug that had never before been used in Georgia pumped through his veins, medical experts were split about whether the execution went awry and defense attorneys called for an immediate investigation.

Roy Willard Blankenship jerked his head several times throughout Thursday's procedure, which used pentobarbital as part of the 3-drug combination for the first time in Georgia. One expert said Blankenship's movements were a signal the execution was botched, while another suggested it could have been a side effect of the drug.

Defense attorney Brian Kammer claimed before the execution that using the drug would risk needless suffering. In separate filings Friday, he asked state prison officials to launch an independent investigation and urged the Georgia Supreme Court to immediately halt all executions in the state pending the outcome.

"This problem is obviously capable of repetition while evading review, and it is unconscionable to allow further lethal injections to proceed" until prison officials determine what happened, he said in his petition to the court. The state, he said, has proven that it "cannot assure a humane, constitutional execution process."

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Kristen Stancil declined to comment on whether it would launch an investigation, saying only that officials will work with the Attorney General's office and medical experts to ensure "execution procedures are medically appropriate."

She said Georgia used the same protocol adopted by other states that have switched to pentobarbital.

"We remain confident in our ability to carry out humane and dignified executions," she said.

Blankenship's execution has set off a debate in the legal community and aroused the scrutiny of medical experts.

"They clearly botched this execution and Mr. Blankenship clearly suffered," said Dr. David Waisel, a Harvard medical professor who has raised questions about using pentobarbital.

"Whether it was due to incompetent performance or whether it was due to the fact that the drug didn't work as the state claimed it would, something went wrong."

Blankenship's movements could also have come during an "excitement phase" that takes hold before a patient slips into unconsciousness after receiving a powerful sedative, said Dr. Howard Nearman, chairman of the anesthesiology department at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.

"As he's going to sleep, there could be many kinds of reactions. He could have had the same reaction with sodium thiopental," Nearman said. "And he could have been faking it. Anything's possible."

Georgia has joined a growing number of death penalty states that use pentobarbital in executions amid a supply shortage of sodium thiopental. That drug was long used in Georgia and other states as the 1st part of a 3-drug execution combination.

The state was forced to switch to pentobarbital this month after the state surrendered its supply of sodium thiopental to Drug Enforcement Administration officials amid an investigation into how prison officials obtained the drug. The probe is still pending.

But critics have long claimed that using pentobarbital could risk violating the ban on cruel and unusual punishment, and Thursday's execution isn't likely to lessen that criticism.

Blankenship was put to death for the 1978 murder of Sarah Mims Bowen, who died of heart failure after she was sexually assaulted in her Savannah apartment.

Before the execution started, Blankenship was laughing and chatting with a prison chaplain, and at one point he tried to converse with the observers sitting behind a glass window, seemingly unaware that they couldn't hear him.

That changed as the injection began. First, he jerked his head toward his left arm and made a startled face while blinking rapidly. His mouth tightened, and he lurched to his right arm, and then lunged twice with his mouth wide open.

He then pushed his head forward and his chin smacked as he mouthed words that were inaudible to observers. His eyes never closed.

Blankenship's movements stopped within three minutes after the lethal injection started, and his breathing rapidly slowed. He was deemed unconscious about 6 minutes after it started, and pronounced dead about 9 minutes later.

Waisel warned it could be difficult to determine what went wrong, if anything, partly because independent experts were restricted from watching the execution.

"No one actually knows if it's going fine," said Waisel. "The Department of Corrections people are invested in having a dead inmate and they're not experienced enough to know if this is humane or not humane."

Source: Associated Press, June 24, 2011


Unusual circumstances of US execution to be cited in challenges to new drug's use

Medical experts say it's possible that Georgia prison staff botched execution

The thrashing, jerking death of Roy Willard Blankenship has lawyers for death row inmates plotting fresh arguments against the drug used to execute him, even though they may never be able to prove that it caused the spasms in his last moments.

Medical experts say it's possible that Georgia prison staff botched the procedure last week using a controversial new sedative, that Blankenship had some sort of jarring reaction to the drug, or even that he faked it. Still, defence attorneys around the nation say they plan to cite Blankenship in requests to stop executions using pentobarbital, a chemical being adopted by a growing number of states as they run out of another commonly-used drug.

Thursday's execution of Blankenship, condemned for the 1978 murder of an elderly woman, was the first in Georgia using pentobarbital as part of a three-drug execution combination. The state was forced to switch after it surrendered its supply of sodium thiopental to federal officials amid an investigation into how the drug was obtained.

Georgia is one of several states that have adopted pentobarbital, which is commonly used to destroy dogs and cats, since the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped making it in 2009 and dropped plans to resume production earlier this year.

Among the objections to the new drug were multiple challenges by Blankenship's attorneys, who argued in state and federal court that it could cause him needless pain and suffering. Each request was rejected.

Blankenship jerked his head several times, mumbled inaudibly and appeared to gasp for breath for several minutes after he was pumped with pentobarbital on Thursday in Georgia's death chamber. Inmates are usually much more still during a lethal injection, but medical experts are split about what whether Blankenship's movements were a sign that his execution was bungled.

"As he's going to sleep, there could be many kinds of reactions. He could have had the same reaction with sodium thiopental," which was once the predominant execution drug, said Dr. Howard Nearman, who chairs the anesthesiology department at Case Western Reserve University's medical school. "And he could have been faking it. Anything's possible."

Georgia's prison department has stopped short of publicly launching an investigation, but said in a statement it will work with the state attorney general's office to ensure "execution procedures are medically appropriate."

Whatever conclusions the state reaches, defence attorneys said they are planning to invoke Blankenship's execution in court filings as evidence that pentobarbital could violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

"It is clear that something went very wrong during the Blankenship execution and lawyers challenging lethal injection in other states will be taking a very close look at what happened," said Ty Alper, a California attorney who represents several death row inmates and works with the death penalty clinic at the University of California-Berkeley.

As the injection began, Blankenship jerked his head toward his left arm and began rapidly blinking. He then lurched toward his right arm, lunging twice with his mouth wide open as if he were gasping for air. A minute later, he pushed his head forward while mouthing inaudible words. His eyes never closed.

The movements stopped within 3 minutes, and he was declared dead 12 minutes later.

Medical experts differ on whether the spasms indicate the execution was improperly carried out.

Dr. Mark Dershwitz, a University of Massachusetts anesthesiologist, said pentobarbital can sometimes cause pain and involuntary jerking movements even when it's properly injected. Case Western's Nearman said patients sometimes move during an "excitement phase" that takes hold as a patient slips out of consciousness.

Others said Blankenship's reaction is a sign the pentobarbital didn't work right.

"They clearly botched this execution and Mr. Blankenship clearly suffered," said Dr. David Waisel, a Harvard medical professor who has raised questions about using pentobarbital. He said it's clear "something went wrong."

It's rare to see an inmate struggle after a lethal injection starts. Lewis Williams had to be forcibly strapped to a gurney as he pleaded for mercy during his 2004 execution in Ohio. But observers said he went to sleep the moment sodium thiopental started.

Blankenship's execution, though, is the second example of odd movements in lethal injections involving pentobarbital this year. Eddie Duval Powell raised his head with a confused look on his face and glanced around Alabama's death chamber after he was injected with pentobarbital on June 16. He then dropped his head back down and appeared to be unconscious.

"This will become an issue," said Alabama death penalty attorney Bryan Stevenson, citing the 2 cases. "With Blankenship's execution, new concerns will be raised about the protocols states are employing with this new drug."

Officials in Georgia, meanwhile, are quietly trying to determine what, if anything went wrong. No new executions have been scheduled since Blankenship was put to death.

His lawyer Brian Kammer wants an independent investigation and a firmer ban on executions until such a probe is complete.

"I can't see how this is not further evidence that Georgia can't competently implement a judicial lethal injection, and that it would form the basis of future challenges," he said.

Source: AP, June 28, 2011

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"His eyes never closed", Gamso - For the Defense, June 24, 2011
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