Lawyers representing 33 death row inmates in Tennessee are turning to expert witnesses to argue that lethal injection is an unconstitutional method of execution due to the risk of severe pain and lingering death created by the state’s drug cocktail. Attorneys for the state called counter experts to refute the plaintiff’s claim, causing the high-profile trial over the use of lethal injection in Tennessee to turn into a battle of the experts whose testimony will prove critical to the outcome of the case.
Tennessee Death Row Inmates Use Experts to Challenge Lethal Injection
There have been several challenges to the lethal injection system over the past few years in which inmates allege the process is unconstitutionally cruel because of the pain suffered during execution. While the Tennessee inmates challenging the state’s execution process similarly cite the high risk of suffering as a reason to ban lethal injection, they are also claiming that the drug cocktail creates a risk of lingering death. According to the lawsuit, Tennessee’s lethal injection drug mixture risks an overdose of sedatives which can put the inmates into a death-like coma for hours before killing them.
According to two expert witnesses testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs, the negative consequences of the coma-like lingering death that inmates suffer can become severe if the condemned is either resuscitated or spontaneously re-awakes. During the trial, a resuscitation expert witness testified to the court that it is possible to revive an inmate who has been administered the lethal drug cocktail, sometimes ½ hour or more after it had taken effect. Another expert witness for the plaintiffs who specializes in anesthesiology testified that it is possible that the inmate spontaneously recover despite being given a lethal dose of the drug cocktail Tennessee uses.
While a recent Supreme Court decision ruled that a lethal injection cocktail does not need to avoid causing inmates pain, the plaintiffs’ efforts to use expert witnesses that caution about the possibility of post-injection revival is a unique challenge to Tennessee’s execution process. Attorneys for the state reached to expert witnesses to refute that position, setting up dueling expert opinions, particularly on the idea of spontaneous recovery.
Tennessee Attorneys Call Expert Witness to Defend Lethal Injection Process
In response to experts for death row inmates warning of the risk of revival post-lethal injection, attorneys for Tennessee called an expert witness to testify about the relatively pain-free and final death provided by the state’s lethal injection drugs. According to Dr. Feng Li, a medical examiner called as an expert witness, the drug cocktail used by Tennessee contains a sufficiently high dose of the sedative pentobarbital to render the inmate unconscious within seconds. Dr. Li went on to testify that once the inmate was unconscious he or she would not feel any pain and not revive later because the dosage of the drug would be sufficient to cause death within minutes of its administration.
Dr. Li’s expert testimony directly contradicted the opinions of the plaintiff’s experts, leaving the Tennessee Court with the task of weighing evidence provided by both sets of experts in order to determine whether the risks alleged by the plaintiffs are credible enough to prevent the state from carrying out further executions under its current process. Executions in Tennessee have been on hold for more than five years as the state’s courts and legislature have debated solutions to the rising unavailability of traditional lethal injection drugs.
Tennessee legislators have debated changing the three drug cocktail to a single drug, and reinstating the electric chair as a back-up method of execution, but so far no final decision has been made. Tennessee joins a number of states that have been confronted with procedural challenges to lethal injection as pharmaceutical companies withhold the necessary drugs. Utah and Oklahoma have responded by reinstating alternative methods of execution – firing squad and gas chamber, respectively – and should the Tennessee Court rule in favor of the plaintiffs in this case lawmakers would be forced to consider similar measures or abandon the death penalty altogether.