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Legality of Ohio's lethal injection weighed

An anesthesiologist testified Monday that Ohio's lethal injection procedure isn't appropriate for dogs or cats, let alone humans.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An anesthesiologist testified Monday that Ohio's lethal injection procedure isn't appropriate for dogs or cats, let alone humans.

Dr. Mark Heath's testimony on behalf of two murder defendants came in a Lorain County hearing on the constitutionality of state's method for putting prisoners to death.

Heath, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University, says it's possible to perform lethal injection of prisoners in a humane manner, but that Ohio's method falls below the standard for euthanizing household pets.

Ohio requires its executions to be carried out "in a professional, humane, sensitive and dignified manner." The two men facing murder charges say the state's lethal injection procedure doesn't give the quick and painless deaths required by state law.

Lethal injections are on hold nationally while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge in a case from Kentucky, which is among the roughly three dozen states that administer three drugs in succession to sedate, paralyze and kill prisoners.

The major criticism of the three-drug execution procedure is that if the executioner administers too little anesthetic or makes mistakes in injecting it, the inmate could suffer excruciating pain from the other two drugs.

Proximity to inmate an issue
Heath testified that the design of Ohio's death house was problematic because it separates the inmate from the person administering the drugs in two separate rooms. The rooms are separated by a one-way mirror.

"Doing it that way substantially increases the risk of a major problem occurring," said Heath, adding later, "I would never induce general anesthesia from a different room through long tubing."

Anesthesiologists always administer drugs while standing next to the patient so they can detect if problems occur, such as a leak or a ruptured vein, Heath said. He also warned drugs could go into the tissue instead of the vein.

Other problems that could occur come during the mixing of the anesthetic — sodium thiopental, which is sold in powder form — and the insertion of the catheters in the veins and kinks in the IV tubing, he said.

Troubles with two executions
Difficulties with two executions in recent years, in which the execution team struggled to find suitable veins in inmates' arms, brought complaints that the method is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. Ohio officials stand by the procedure.

Heath testified on behalf of defendants Ronald McCloud and Ruben Rivera, who are accused of separate murders and could receive death sentences if convicted.

The state was expected to counter with expert witness Dr. Mark Dershwitz, an anesthesiologist from Massachusetts, who will testify via video conference Tuesday.

Ohio has executed 26 inmates since it resumed putting prisoners to death in 1999.