Lethal injection expert will no longer testify for states

Several inmates put to death this year snorted and gasped when drugs injected to kill them failed to do so promptly. Now, as the Associated Press reports, an anesthesiologist used by 22 states and the federal government to defend execution methods said he will no longer serve as an expert witness.

Mark Dershwitz, an anesthesiologist and pharmacologist from the University of Massachusetts, stands by the effectiveness of drugs used in a controversial lethal injection in Ohio. However, he decided to terminate his role as an expert witness after the state said in an April press release that state lawyers had discussed the execution with him.

The American Board of Anesthesiology prohibits anesthesiologists from helping states develop execution protocols. Members are allowed to serve as expert witnesses but not as consultants.

Dershwitz said there was no dialogue – he was merely told what happened.

The story quotes Dershwitz:

"Although it is still too early to determine if there will be any permanent actions taken against me, the mistakes made by Ohio in the April press release could apparently happen again because of the lack of necessary review processes," Dershwitz said in an announcement he sent to several states June 18.

"I cannot take that chance and will therefore terminate my role as an expert witness on behalf of Ohio and all other states and the federal government."

The New Republic first reported Dershwitz’s change of heart and examines Ohio's concerns about its execution method.

Lethal injections have been scrutinized in a number of states, including in Oklahoma, where inmate Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack 43 minutes into an April execution, and in Arizona, where Joseph Rudolph Wood III died in July after 117 minutes and 15 doses of a drug mixture intended to stop his heart.

Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer said Wood “gulped like a fish on land.”

In January, convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die in Ohio, and according to some witnesses suffered and struggled to breathe.

Dershwitz doesn’t believe McGuire suffered but said the state might have jeopardized his career with the April release, announcing an increase in the dose used in lethal injections.

As the AP reports, states are already having trouble finding drugs to use in executions and may have trouble finding a replacement for Dershwitz to testify on their behalf.

The story said:

It will likely be difficult for any state to find an experienced anesthesiologist willing to argue some of the medical opinions that Dershwitz provided, said Dr. Mark Heath, a Columbia University anesthesiologist who often testifies for inmates challenging injection methods.

In particular, Dershwitz was an advocate for the two-drug method involving the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone, the two drugs used in the prolonged Ohio and Arizona executions, Heath said.

In Pennsylvania, convicted murderer Richard Poplawski filed a request under the state Right-to-Know Law for information on execution drugs after the controversial Ohio execution. The request was originally denied, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But Poplawski appealed, and, in March, the state’s Office of Open Records ruled that the Department of Open Records didn’t have to reveal security procedures but shouldn’t withhold other information.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org.