Tenn. Warden To Check Consciousness In Execution

Deborah Denno on My Fox Memphis, December 06, 2010

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Prison warden Ricky Bell says he is prepared to check an inmate for consciousness during an execution despite a lack of medical training.

His qualifications to ensure the inmate is properly sedated will be at the center of court hearings in Davidson County Chancery Court. The hearings were ordered by the Tennessee Supreme Court after all scheduled executions were put on hold.

Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman last month decided the current three-drug method of execution put inmates at risk of death by suffocation during a legal challenge brought by death row inmate Stephen West.

In response to Bonnyman's concerns that the inmate may still be conscious, the state added a provision that would require the warden to perform checks for consciousness during the process.

The Tennessee Supreme Court put West's execution, scheduled for last Tuesday, on hold as well as upcoming executions for three other inmates while Bonnyman considers whether the warden is qualified to determine whether an inmate is unconscious.

Bell, who is the warden at Nashville's Riverbend Maximum Security Institution where Tennessee executions are carried out, told The Tennessean he is comfortable with the change required by the court, which would have him brush his hand over an inmate's eyelashes and gently shake the inmate.

"I feel comfortable that I can do what the court has asked of me," Bell said. "Our staff just adjusts to what we're asked when it comes to the executions. It's something that we do. It's in our mission."

West's attorneys argued during hearings held last month that three-drug lethal injection procedure does not adequately anesthetize prisoners, violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Bonnyman said in her ruling that the 5 grams of sodium thiopental, the first drug meant to render the inmate unconscious, was insufficient. She said the state should adopt some method to determine whether the inmate was awake before being injected with the second drug, a paralyzing agent.

Under the new rules, if the warden determines the inmate is still conscious after the first injection, he will order a second injection of sodium thiopental.

David Raybin, a Nashville defense lawyer and former prosecutor who helped write the Tennessee death penalty statute in 1976, said he thinks the safeguards will be upheld.

"To me, the government should come up with an unquestionably reasonable way of doing this," Raybin said. "I don't understand why it's that difficult."

Fordham Law School Professor Deborah W. Denno, who has studied the death penalty for the last 20 years, questioned who would be the expert in humane lethal injection executions. "It's not like there's really a group of doctors ready to do this," she said.

She argues based on her research that firing squads are the most humane method of execution. There have been three such executions in the United States since 1976.

"It's the only method that is actually carried out by a trained professional," she said. "This is the irony of the death penalty in this country. People think a firing squad is too barbaric. They think it's too Wild West."