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September 21, 2020

Big new NPR investigation showing pulmonary edema in executed inmates suggests a painful process

NPR has this interesting and extended new piece about the medical realities of modern executions under the headline "Gasping For Air: Autopsies Reveal Troubling Effects Of Lethal Injection."  The who piece should be reviewed in full for anyone who follows closely the debates over execution methods, and I am pleased to see that the piece discusses the ground-breaking litigation that has been pioneered by Allen Bohnert, a federal public defender who represents Ohio inmates with upcoming executions who happens to be a former student of mine.  I cannot easily summarize the piece, but here is an excerpt:

[Emory University Hospital doctors] Zivot and Edgar found pulmonary edema occurring in about three-quarters of more than three dozen autopsy reports they gathered.  "The autopsy findings were quite striking and unambiguous," says Zivot.  He had imagined that lethal injection induced a quick death and would leave an inmate's body pristine, or at least close to it. But the autopsies told another story.  "I began to see a picture that was more consistent with a slower death," he says. "A death of organ failure, of a dramatic nature that I recognized would be associated with suffering."...

Zivot and Edgar brought their findings of pulmonary edema to federal courts in Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Ohio.  That evidence is now at the forefront of constitutional challenges to the death penalty in the United States.  It has even made its way to the Supreme Court, where lawyers for inmates on federal death row have used autopsies to argue that lethal injection protocols constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Now, an NPR investigation has expanded the scope of this evidence of pulmonary edema significantly.  A review of more than 200 autopsies — obtained through public records requests — showed signs of pulmonary edema in 84% of the cases.  The findings were similar across the states and, notably, across the different drug protocols used....

Doctors who spoke with NPR about the findings also raised serious concerns that many inmates are not being properly anesthetized and are therefore feeling the suffocating and drowning sensation brought on by pulmonary edema.  The findings come at a time when death penalty states are already facing scrutiny over drug shortages, untrained execution personnel and a series of high-profile botched executions.

"These autopsy reports show definitively without question that these inmates are developing pulmonary edema," says Allen Bohnert, a federal public defender who represents Ohio inmates with upcoming executions.  "That evidence continues to build and continues to get better every time another execution happens, unfortunately."

September 21, 2020 at 05:43 PM | Permalink

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