Execution Methods Examined

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 2009

Romell Broom knew he was about to die when the Ohio prison warden came to his cell, escorted by guards, and read his death warrant. A court had rejected his final appeal.

Soon, two nurses arrived and told Broom to lie down as they tried to insert a needle into his arm, readying a vein to receive the three drugs that would knock him out and eventually kill him.

The protocol is a familiar one, used by 35 states and the federal government, but the nurses working on Broom on Sept. 15 could not find a suitable vein. They jabbed his arms, his hands, his right ankle and his left leg. Once, they hit a bone. Broom tried to help, then cried.

After about two hours, unable to establish an intravenous connection, authorities called off the execution. Gov. Ted Strickland (D) granted a one-week reprieve, since extended while a federal court considers a defense claim that a second execution attempt would amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Strickland's decision to delay two more executions and review the way Ohio has executed 32 prisoners since 1999 could influence the way condemned prisoners elsewhere are put to death, according to experts on the death penalty.

"Everything's on the table at this point," said Julie Walburn, spokeswoman for the Ohio corrections department, which has overseen two similar situations since 2006. In the other cases, technicians eventually found veins, and the prisoners were executed.

Walburn said the Strickland administration is all but certain to revise its protocols to deal with cases like Broom's. State officials are also analyzing the effectiveness of the existing three-drug combination and other ways to kill a person with a lethal injection.

"We are taking a very studied approach. This is a complex issue, and we are certainly not going to rush our examination," Walburn said, explaining that Strickland is prepared to delay the scheduled Dec. 8 execution of Kenneth Biros if the new rules are not ready.

"Other states will be watching," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who reported that several states, including Maryland, are working on lethal injection protocols. "Waiting an hour or two hours for this to end, that just doesn't seem right."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 in April 2008 that injecting condemned Kentucky prisoners with the typical sequence of three drugs does not meet the Eighth Amendment threshold of cruel and unusual punishment.

"Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of 'objectively intolerable risk of harm' that qualifies as cruel and unusual," wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The two Kentucky inmates had not asked to avoid execution. Rather, they requested one massive dose of barbiturates, the method used to kill animals.

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