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Tennessee execution: Billy Ray Irick tortured to death, expert says in new filing

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Editor's note: Reporter Dave Boucher was one of seven state-required media witnesses at Irick's execution. 
Billy Ray Irick felt searing pain akin to torture before he died in a Tennessee prison in August, but steps taken in carrying out his execution blocked signs of suffering, according to a doctor who reviewed information about the lethal injection.
In new court filings entered late Thursday amidst an ongoing legal challenge of Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol, Dr. David Lubarsky said statements from people who witnessed the execution indicated the controversial drug midazolam failed to ensure Irick could not feel pain during his death.
As a result, the death row inmate “experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride,” Lubarsky wrote in the filing.
The document also says the state did not follow its own lethal injection protocol, raising questio…

A medical and psychiatric perspective on death penalty

US execution
Once again the New Hampshire Legislature is considering repeal of the death penalty. The repeal bill, Senate Bill 593, would replace capital punishment with imprisonment without the possibility of parole. SB 593 has 13 sponsors in the Senate, which is already a majority, so it is likely to pass in the Senate. It is also likely to garner sufficient support to pass in the House as well. Unfortunately, Gov. Sununu has already indicated he will veto repeal of the death penalty if it comes to his desk. We can only hope he listens to the many arguments from both sides of the aisle to reconsider his opposition to repeal. The arguments for repeal are from so many different perspectives: religious, moral, pragmatic, legal, financial, medical and psychiatric/psychological. I will offer the arguments here from a medical and psychiatric perspective.

Organized medicine (the American Medical Association) has opposed physicians participating in the process of administering the death penalty since July 1980. The reason for this prohibition of physicians participating in the process of killing a prisoner is that it is a violation of Section 1 of the AMA’s Principles of Medical Ethics which states that “a physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human rights.” It is unfortunate that other less qualified medical personnel have been employed in the procedures of administering lethal injections, often inadequately and always inhumanely, in violation of these important ethical principles.

Gov. Sununu has offered two reasons for his opposition to repeal of the death penalty. He expressed his interest in supporting crime victims and supporting the death penalty for the most heinous crimes. I think we can all agree there is no more heinous crime than murder, yet we had more than 11,000 murders in the United States last year. Would we as a society want to murder 11,000 more if we found their murderers and were able to prosecute them successfully? What about the mistakes, as there have been well over 150 exonerations already? Or are some murders more heinous than others? With all due respect, and I mean this sincerely, is a school teacher’s death by murder, or a brother’s or sister’s death by murder, or a child’s death by murder, less heinous than a policeman’s death by murder?

As a psychiatrist I have been concerned about violence throughout my career. There is certainly too much violence in our world and in our country. As a society we need to focus on reducing violence, not condoning it. Violence of course comes in many forms, from bullying in our schools to sexual, physical and emotional abuse in our homes and workplaces, and of course murder in our homes and streets. We certainly don’t punish bullies by bullying them, nor should we punish abusers by abusing them, nor should we punish murderers by murdering them. Elective murder by the state is not the best we can do as a civilized society. We can do better, and we should. It is not a good example to murder to show that murder is wrong.

Let me discuss healing, as healing from wounds is what we as physicians try our best to do in our practice of medicine. Psychiatrists focus of course on emotional wounds, which we know can be just as traumatic and long lasting as physical wounds, if not more so. Emotional wounds can actually last a lifetime, if not even longer, as we have seen from stories of children of holocaust survivors. Murder of a loved one is such a trauma, such a deep emotional wound, that healing is at best a long and tortuous road, requiring as much support and love a family and community can provide. Do we honestly think that putting a convicted murderer to death by taking 10 to 20 or more years of trials and appeals helps the process of healing for victims (family members, colleagues and friends) of the crime of murder? Many years of publicity and personal appearances by family and others just perpetuates the pain and re-opens the wounds of such a violent death of a loved one. Administering the death penalty thus interferes with healing, with the emotional attempts at “closure” for the victims of murder, rather than “strengthening the laws for crime victims.”

In thinking about wounds related to the death penalty there is another important factor to consider, namely the emotional wounds inflicted on those individuals who are involved in the procedures and administration of the death penalty. As a member of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty I have heard and read about the effects on those individuals who participate in the process of administering the death penalty, the actual process of killing of those on death rows around the country. Wardens, prison workers, prosecutors and defense attorneys have experienced depression, anxiety and PTSD as a result of participating in the death penalty process. Since we all know that killing is really only reasonable if we have no other choice to defend ourselves or others, do we want to continue to subject so many individuals and state workers to this “heinous” process of killing when life without parole is available as an alternative?

I have discussed above only some of the many sound and compelling reasons why the death penalty is unreasonable for our state and society to maintain. I am reminded often of the final lines of John Donne’s 17th century poem “No Man is an Island” as a potent argument for ending the death penalty:

“Any man’s death diminishes me,

because I’m involved in mankind,

and therefore never send to know

for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee.”

Source: fosters.com, Opinion, March 11, 2018. Leonard Korn, MD, is a psychiatrist in Portsmouth and a member of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.


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

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