Va. lawyers: Executions are illegal practice of medicine

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia executioners who inject condemned inmates with lethal doses of drugs are illegally practicing medicine, pharmacy and anesthesiology without licenses, two Alexandria lawyers claim in a complaint filed Tuesday.

Attorneys Meghan Shapiro and Christopher Leibig asked the Richmond Circuit Court for an injunction halting the allegedly unauthorized practices.

The complaint says corrections officers are not checking to ensure that prisoners are properly anesthetized and unconscious before administering two lethal drugs: one that causes asphyxiation and another that stops the heart “with excruciating pain that has been likened to the feeling of having one’s veins set on fire.”

Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said prison officials had not seen the complaint and would not comment on pending litigation.

“I’m just trying to hold the Department of Corrections accountable,” Shapiro said in a telephone interview. “I don’t believe they should be able to operate outside the law.”

The complaint names the department’s director, its pharmacy supervisor and unnamed execution team leaders as defendants. By law, the executioners’ names are secret. But Shapiro said depositions of unnamed witnesses and other discovery materials in federal lawsuits show that the drugs, available only by prescription, are not being administered by licensed medical professionals.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, said lethal injection has been challenged around the country on various grounds. California and Maryland have put executions on hold because of lethal injection issues.

However, Dieter said he is aware of no other challenge that has claimed executioners are violating medical licensing laws and regulations.

“In almost all cases, there are lethal injection challenges accompanying appeals as these executions get close,” Dieter said.

No executions are scheduled at this time in Virginia, which has executed more people than any state except Texas since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Dieter said the federal government and all 34 death penalty states use lethal injection, although some have other methods available as backup. In Virginia, condemned inmates are allowed to choose between injection and electrocution. If they decline to choose, they get the injection.

The administration of those intravenous drugs by unlicensed personnel has been problematic, according to the complaint filed by Shapiro and Leibig.

“They have no idea what they’re doing,” Shapiro said in a written statement.

The lawyers claim that along with failing to determine whether a prisoner is unconscious before administering the lethal drugs, Virginia’s executioners have administered recalled drugs, misused a drug for general anesthesia and made mistakes in paperwork documenting the handling and administration of chemicals.

Execution teams also have spent substantial time during training sessions planning barbecues, picnics and other events, the filing says.

Stephen A. Northup, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said Virginians “should be concerned, if not shocked” by the allegations.

No hearing date has been set.

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