Death Chamber of Secrets

As part of the secrecy surrounding the execution process, we do not really know who the people carrying out lethal injections are.
11/26/2007 03:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

"It never occurred to me when we set this up that we'd have complete idiots administering the drugs." So said Jay Chapman, the Oklahoma doctor who developed the infamous three-drug cocktail used by many states to execute people - the same concoction that is now under constitutional review before the U.S. Supreme Court. As part of the secrecy surrounding the execution process, we do not really know who the people carrying out lethal injections are. But thanks to a recent lawsuit in Missouri, we know a little bit about one of these people.

He is a doctor from Missouri called Dr. Doe. He has been barred from practice in two hospitals, been the subject of numerous malpractice lawsuits and has been forbidden by a federal judge from "participat[ing] in any manner, at any level, in the State of Missouri's lethal injection process."

Dr. Doe's transgressions were not brought to light by the state, but as the result of a lawsuit filed by a condemned inmate. And we learned a lot from Dr. Doe's own testimony. The doctor admitted under oath that he has dyslexia. He testified that his dyslexia renders him unable to work with numbers, so, Dr. Doe said, "it's not unusual for me to make mistakes." He testified "that he had cut the thiopental [the drug that renders a person unconscious] dosage he gave inmates by half because a change in drug packaging forced him to 'improvise'." According to an amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month, Dr. Doe participated in more than 50 executions in Missouri in which he "varied the amount of thiopental he gave inmates on a whim, without informing anyone." Just as Doe was not informing anyone about his improvisation, the state of Missouri did not inform anyone about the unqualified doctor running its lethal injection system.

Where has Dr. Doe ended up now that he no longer executes prisoners in Missouri? Astoundingly, the federal government has made him as part of its execution team. Although the U.S. Bureau of Prisons cites a policy of not publicly disclosing the names of staff members involved with lethal injections, we know that Dr. Doe will possibly replicate his abysmal performance in Missouri on the national level because he testified about his new job in the inmate's lawsuit.

If ignorance is bliss, then your government wants you ecstatically unaware of the lethal injection process. Indeed, if it were not for lawsuits filed by condemned inmates, we may have never learned how poorly the death penalty system is run. Much of this information about Dr. Doe and other lethal injection issues is available on lethalinjection.org, a website run by the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley's law school.

But even with lawsuits and websites we still have to fight to get information. Even the Show Me State kept its citizens blind to the fact that a doctor, found unfit to practice in two hospitals, was overseeing the execution of inmates. Only government transparency will allow us to see the absurdity of a system that allows a doctor who cannot perform executions of prisoners in one state to participate in the executions of inmates from all over the country. We need to see it to believe it.