Public opinion about the death penalty has been shifting since the mid-1990s, as DNA testing and other evidence has revealed the frequency with which innocent defendants are sent to death row. Opinions have also been swayed by the realization that the death penalty is administered arbitrarily, with race often proving to be a critical factor as courts decide who should live and who should die.
Colorado recently became the latest of 22 states to reject the death penalty. The governors of three other states have imposed a moratorium on executions. States that maintain a death penalty have turned to experts in an effort to determine whether executions can be carried out in a way that does not torture the condemned prisoner.
Expert Testimony in Death Penalty Challenge
Experts continue to inform the ongoing death penalty debate. Last year, expert testimony in Ohio persuaded a federal court that Ohio’s method of executing prisoners was likely to cause extreme pain. The court relied on the testimony of several expert witnesses to support its conclusion.
Ohio’s lethal injection protocol begins with an injection of midazolam, a sedative that, in the administered dose, can make it extraordinarily difficult for an inmate to breathe. Inmates next receive a paralytic drug to prevent them from moving, followed by potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
Warren Henness, among other inmates, challenged the three-drug protocol. He argued that the paralytic makes it impossible to alert the authorities to the extreme pain caused by the drugs. He contended that midazolam causes extraordinary pain and does not shield inmates from feeling that pain before they die.
Henness supported his challenge with testimony from five expert witnesses, including a neuropathologist, a pulmonologist, a pharmacologist, a professor of anesthesiology who is also certified as a clinical pharmacologist, and an anesthesiologist who is certified in pain management. Each expert had impressive credentials.
The magistrate judge who heard Henness’ challenge excluded a government expert witness who, in this and other cases, had failed to produce an expert report containing the information required by federal law. The court rejected a Daubert challenge to another witness for the state, while expressing doubt that the expert’s opinion was entitled to significant weight.
Another government witness was excluded prior to trial because he had published little relevant research and was largely repeating the opinions of other experts. In addition, the minimal research that he had performed contradicted the opinions that the state wanted him to offer in court.
Court’s Analysis of Expert Evidence
Based on the expert testimony, the magistrate judge found that the second and third drugs cause excruciating pain, a finding the state did not contest. The magistrate judge also found that midazolam does not block the pain caused by the injection of the second and third drugs. An inmate who is sedated by midazolam is not unconscious and, as multiple lay witnesses at executions have observed, is capable of experiencing severe pain.
Midazolam, in the dosage given by the state, is also likely to cause pulmonary edema, an extremely painful condition that causes airways in the lungs to fill with fluids, creating the sensation of drowning. In other words, Ohio’s execution protocol is akin to waterboarding, a form of torture. In fact, the experts explained, it is worse than waterboarding because the sensation of drowning is accompanied by excruciating pain as chemicals cause the inmate to feel like fire is flowing through the inmate’s veins.
In light of Supreme Court precedent, the magistrate judge declined to halt Henness’ execution because he was unable to demonstrate that Ohio had the ability to kill him more humanely. On appeal, in a remarkably cursory opinion that essentially ignored expert evidence that the magistrate judge carefully parsed, the Sixth Circuit determined that a pulmonary edema is not sufficiently painful to create the “needless suffering” that violates the constitutional safeguard against cruel and unusual punishment. One wonders whether a judge who actually experienced a pulmonary edema might express such a callous opinion.
The Sixth Circuit’s opinion has been justly criticized for elevating “junk science” above expert evidence that was accepted by the trier of fact. By underplaying the extent of the suffering caused by the execution protocol, the Sixth Circuit is permitting what well qualified experts regard as death by torture — exactly the kind of cruel and unusual punishment that the Eighth Amendment forbids.
Expert Opinions Sway the Governor
Based on the expert testimony, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine granted a temporary stay of Henness’ execution. The governor ordered a review of the state’s execution protocol, with a view to replacing midazolam with a drug that would not cause pain and that would prevent the inmate from feeling the pain caused by the remaining drugs.
When Gov. DeWine was told that no such drug could be identified, he asked the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction whether other methods of execution would be less painful. That review is apparently still underway. Henness’ execution has been rescheduled three times and is currently set to occur May 14, 2020. The governor postponed other executions and has not yet decided when and whether Ohio executions will resume.
Some other states have abandoned execution protocols that use midazolam. Fearing an agonizing death, Tennessee inmates have chosen electrocution over the administration of midazolam. Most states, however, do not give condemned prisoners a choice of execution methods. Whether Tennessee, Ohio, and other states that still use midazolam in executions will eventually hear the voices of expert witnesses remain to be seen.