A nationally renowned expert witness who has worked to defend the lethal injection method used by a number of states across the country has terminated his role, leaving the states facing legal action questioning their death penalty procedures without his critical testimony. Mark Dershwitz, an anesthesiologist at the University of Massachusetts, withdrew himself from the litigation challenging death penalty drugs last week.
Expert Anesthesiologist Supports Death Penalty Procedure
Dr. Dershwitz had risen as a leading expert for prison officials over the past decade, and most recently was called as an expert witness by the state of Ohio in support of its new two-drug combination used in lethal injections. Ohio was challenged for violating constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment after the two-drug method led to a 26-minute execution in January. During the legal process, Ohio consulted with Dr. Dershwitz who has long defended the use of the two-drug system and has offered testimony that inmates do not suffer throughout the process.
Throughout his career as a death penalty expert witness, Dr. Dershwitz has written affidavits, presented expert reports, and offered testimony in court for states accused of civil rights violations in lethal injection procedures. Over the past 10 years, Dershwitz has testified at the behest of the federal government, and 22 states including Ohio, Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Maryland, Arizona, and Texas.
Death Penalty Expert Quits to Avoid Professional Scrutiny
The American Board of Anesthesiology forbids its members from contributing to the creation of death penalty procedures, and after a recent miscommunication about his role with the state of Ohio, Dr. Dershwitz felt he was walking too fine a line. In a press release statement regarding Dershwitz’s involvement in the latest lethal injection challenge, Ohio officials announced that they had consulted with the doctor and determined that the process had been conducted humanely. The state went on to note that “to allay any remaining concerns” it was increasing the dosages used in the two-drug method – giving appearance that Dershwitz’s expert opinion had factored into the decision.
Although the state later clarified that Dershwitz had nothing to do with the process of changing the lethal injection method, the doctor felt the mistake could jeopardize his status as an anesthesiologist. Noting that the confusion could happen again should he continue to provide expert witness services in death penalty challenges, Dr. Dershwitz decided to terminate his role as an expert witness working for Ohio, all other states, and the federal government. Following Dershwitz’s abrupt departure as a lethal injection expert witness supporting the two-drug method, states will struggle to replace him as civil rights challenges to the death penalty mount.
Loss of Lethal Injection Expert Leaves Impact
Dr. Dershwitz’s decision will impact lethal injection litigation because he filled a unique niche in the industry as one of the few anesthesiologists willing to testify in support of the two-drug method of lethal injection. Dr. Mark Heath, a Columbia University anesthesiologist who often testifies against use of lethal injection, said of the difficulties states will have replacing Dershwitz, “I think it’s very unlikely that any other medical experts familiar with these drugs will be willing to support [the two-drug] combination.”
With the lethal injection process coming under increased scrutiny after challenging executions in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona earlier this year, Dr. Dershwitz’s decision to step down as an expert witness leaves a void that states defending their death penalty procedures will not easily fill.