Suit opposes injections
Department of Corrections follows incorrect execution protocol, attorneys allege
The Virginia Department of Corrections may be misusing procedures of medicine, anesthesiology and pharmacy when administering lethal injections, according to a complaint filed earlier this week by Alexandria attorneys Meghan Shapiro and Christopher Leibig.
Shapiro and Leibig allege individuals who do not hold a medical or pharmaceutical license, but are still administering lethal injections, are legally prohibited from administering or distributing any kind of drugs or medicine..
Since Virginia executioners are not licensed medical professionals, Shapiro, a criminal defense attorney who exclusively represents men and women indicted for capital murder, said in a press release Virginia Department of Corrections officers and employees are illegally administering lethal injections.
"I would like to see the Richmond City Circuit Court require the Department of Corrections to comply with all of Virginia's laws and regulations, including those concerning the administration of anesthesia and the handling of controlled chemicals," Shapiro said in an email. "It is important that someone holds the Department of Corrections accountable. They should not be permitted to operate outside the law."
The suit details how, when carrying out executions, the Department of Corrections employees have previously failed to check if an inmate is unconscious before proceeding to dispense drugs to paralyze, suffocate and stop the patient's heart. They are also accused of administering recalled or non-approved drugs and documenting the administration of executions improperly.
Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said Virginia's lethal injection practices are not necessarily the same as those used in other states.
"[The case] has nothing to do with the death penalty, but people offering themselves as doctors when they're really not," Dieter said. "Obviously these guards and wardens have the provisions to [perform the injection] under the death penalty law, but there are other laws in conflict with [the death penalty law] ... this is still a matter for the courts to decide if [the Department of Corrections is] breaking the law."
In administering a lethal injection, a barbiturate is used to put the inmate to sleep, followed by a drug which paralyzes the patient so he does not show pain from the ensuing heart attack, said Stephen Northup, the executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The deadly lethal injection shot is administered last.
Shapiro has requested information from the Department of Corrections under the Freedom of Information Act from the past year to supplement her case, in addition to reading other public documents from prior court cases challenging Virginia's method of execution. She said corrections officers do not check whether the anesthesia was effective and inmates are unconscious before administering the lethal injection shot, and added if the inmate is not unconscious, the lethal injection can cause excruciating pain.
"The fields of anesthesiology and pharmacy are highly regulated by the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the Department of Corrections is acting outside those laws when they use controlled, prescription drugs during lethal injections," Shapiro said. "Nobody viewing the execution would know that the inmate was suffering, because one of the drugs paralyzes the inmate's entire body, preventing them from moving, screaming out, or even making a facial expression."
The attorney general's office and the Department of Corrections declined to comment on the complaint, as it is pending litigation.
Dieter said Virginia may have to review its execution process and even delay executions until the issue is resolved or the state and the attorneys can reach a solution which does not require executioners to act as doctors.
"This is not trying to get rid of the death penalty, but it's trying to change the process," Dieter said. "The people who are doing the executions now are not the experts. The lawyers are trying to avoid painful executions, or a malpractice, not the execution itself."
Northup said some of the methods used to obtain drugs for injection are under investigation as well.
"The challenges in recent years have said that because of the potential for pain from drugs, [lethal injection] is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, but no one has thought to [point out that] they are not licensed," Northup said. "[The Department of Corrections] has had trouble getting a hold of drugs in the first place because no one wants their drugs to be used to kill people. There have been a couple of instances where the DOC [Department of Corrections] got the drugs in a sneaky fashion and used them after their expiration date had come and gone"