Ga. execution is fodder for challenges to new drug

June 28, 2011 - 1:30 PM
Georgia Execution Drug Shortage

FILE - In this undated file photo released by the Georgia Department of Corrections, death row inmate Roy Willard Blankenship is shown. The execution of Blankenship, who appeared to struggle last week, will be at the center of a push to stop lethal injections using a controversial new sedative, even though they may never be able to prove that it caused the spasms in his last moments. (AP Photo/Georgia Department of Corrections, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — The thrashing, jerking death of Roy Willard Blankenship has lawyers for death row inmates plotting fresh arguments against the drug used to execute him, even though they may never be able to prove that it caused the spasms in his last moments.

Medical experts say it's possible that Georgia prison staff botched the procedure last week using a controversial new sedative, that Blankenship had some sort of jarring reaction to the drug, or even that he faked it. Still, defense attorneys around the nation say they plan to cite Blankenship in requests to stop executions using pentobarbital, a chemical being adopted by a growing number of states as they run out of another commonly-used drug.

Blankenship jerked his head several times, mumbled inaudibly and appeared to gasp for breath for several minutes after he was pumped with pentobarbital on Thursday in Georgia's death chamber. Inmates are usually much more still during a lethal injection, but medical experts are split about what whether Blankenship's movements were a sign that his execution was bungled.

"As he's going to sleep, there could be many kinds of reactions. He could have had the same reaction with sodium thiopental," which was once the predominant execution drug, said Dr. Howard Nearman, who chairs the anesthesiology department at Case Western Reserve University's medical school. "And he could have been faking it. Anything's possible."

Georgia's prison department has stopped short of publicly launching an investigation, but said in a statement it will work with the state attorney general's office to ensure "execution procedures are medically appropriate."

Whatever conclusions the state reaches, defense attorneys said they are planning to invoke Blankenship's execution in court filings as evidence that pentobarbital could violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

"It is clear that something went very wrong during the Blankenship execution and lawyers challenging lethal injection in other states will be taking a very close look at what happened," said Ty Alper, a California attorney who represents several death row inmates and works with the death penalty clinic at the University of California-Berkeley.

The execution of Blankenship, condemned for the 1978 murder of an elderly Savannah woman, was the first in Georgia using pentobarbital as part of a three-drug execution combination. The state was forced to switch after it surrendered its supply of sodium thiopental to federal officials amid an investigation into how the drug was obtained.

Georgia is one of several states that have adopted pentobarbital, which is commonly used to destroy dogs and cats, since the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped making it in 2009 and dropped plans to resume production earlier this year.

Among the objections to the new drug were multiple challenges by Blankenship's attorneys, who argued in state and federal court that it could cause him needless pain and suffering. Each request was rejected.

As the injection began, Blankenship jerked his head toward his left arm and began rapidly blinking. He then lurched toward his right arm, lunging twice with his mouth wide open as if he were gasping for air. A minute later, he pushed his head forward while mouthing inaudible words. His eyes never closed.

The movements stopped within three minutes, and he was declared dead 12 minutes later.

Medical experts differ on whether the spasms indicate the execution was improperly carried out.

Dr. Mark Dershwitz, a University of Massachusetts anesthesiologist, said pentobarbital can sometimes cause pain and involuntary jerking movements even when it's properly injected. Case Western's Nearman said patients sometimes move during an "excitement phase" that takes hold as a patient slips out of consciousness.

Others said Blankenship's reaction is a sign the pentobarbital didn't work right.

"They clearly botched this execution and Mr. Blankenship clearly suffered," said Dr. David Waisel, a Harvard medical professor who has raised questions about using pentobarbital. He said it's clear "something went wrong."

It's rare to see an inmate struggle after a lethal injection starts. Lewis Williams had to be forcibly strapped to a gurney as he pleaded for mercy during his 2004 execution in Ohio. But observers said he went to sleep the moment sodium thiopental started.

Blankenship's execution, though, is the second example of odd movements in lethal injections involving pentobarbital this year. Eddie Duval Powell raised his head with a confused look on his face and glanced around Alabama's death chamber after he was injected with pentobarbital on June 16. He then dropped his head back down and appeared to be unconscious.

"This will become an issue," said Alabama death penalty attorney Bryan Stevenson, citing the two cases. "With Blankenship's execution, new concerns will be raised about the protocols states are employing with this new drug."

Officials in Georgia, meanwhile, are quietly trying to determine what, if anything went wrong. No new executions have been scheduled since Blankenship was put to death.

His lawyer Brian Kammer wants an independent investigation and a firmer ban on executions until such a probe is complete.

"I can't see how this is not further evidence that Georgia can't competently implement a judicial lethal injection, and that it would form the basis of future challenges," he said.

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Associated Press reporter Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., contributed to this report.

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