Now that Philip Workman is dead, public attention should turn to whether his execution for the murder of a Memphis policeman was carried out humanely early today. But that's something we may never know.
Acting on Workman's wishes, U.S. District Judge Todd Campbell has barred any autopsy or gathering of forensic evidence from his body. The judge's ruling will stand until he can hear evidence at a hearing on May 14. Unless it's lifted, it would be impossible to learn the level of barbiturate in Workman's bloodstream and therefore to know whether he was adequately sedated when the executioners injected the lethal chemical.
As a media witness at last night's execution, I can say it's true Workman showed no obvious signs of pain. After making two brief statements, his eyes closed, then his head tilted to the left and he was still until he was pronounced dead at 1:38 a.m. But even if he was in agony, he wouldn't have been able to move. That's because one of the three chemicals injected is a paralyzing agent used solely to make the execution more acceptable to observers by preventing inmate seizures or involuntary gasps of pain. After Workman was paralyzed, that's when a poison used in road salt was injected into his veins to stop his heart.
Child killer Robert Glen Coe's autopsy showed he did not receive enough barbiturate during his 2000 execution in Tennessee, according to one nationally recognized anesthesiologist. Coe "was probably awake, suffocating in silence and felt the searing pain of injection" of the final chemical, Dr. David Lubarsky says in affidavits in at least two Tennessee inmates' lawsuits that claim the state's lethal injection procedures are unconstitutional.
Amazingly, no one on the execution team ever checks whether the prisoner is adequately sedated during the process. That's why medical experts have to rely on the inmate's autopsy.
The review of lethal-injection procedures undertaken by a Correction Department committee in the weeks before Workman's execution didn't produce any real changes in the process, Workman's lawyers pointed out to the courts in his final appeals.
In addition, Correction Department documents, which were obtained by the Scene
in a lawsuit against the Bredesen administration, show the committee was confused over the amount of anesthetic that should be used. In one email, Assistant Correction Commissioner Gayle Ray described the amount of anesthetic as "iffy."
The March 21 email from Ray to Julian Davis, executive assistant to Correction Commissioner George Little, stated: "I blended things together. I think it makes sense. The only thing I was iffy about were the amount of the CCs in the sodium pentothal procedure. [The warden's] instructions were for mixing a smaller amount and I want to be sure what it should be so I left question marks there."
In a March 23 email to prison Warden Ricky Bell, Ray also wrote, "I had to guess at a few things so Ricky, please have your consultant fill in the blanks or correct anything I got wrong."
Judge Campbell agreed that the risk of Workman suffering "excessive pain" was high. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, saying lethal injection is used successfully in other states.
Maybe so, but virtually every state with the death penalty faces legal challenges to lethal injection as violating the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. And there is growing concern among even death-penalty proponents that this supposedly benign method of execution can actually cause excruciating pain.