Death penalty guide botched

The Associated PressFebruary 10, 2007 

— Tennessee's procedure manual for executing prisoners is a jumble of conflicting instructions that mixes new instructions for lethal injection with those for the old electric chair, an Associated Press review found.

Before a lethal injection, the 100-page "Manual of Execution" instructs prison officials to begin by shaving the condemned prisoner's head -- as if preparing him for electrocution. They would also need a fire extinguisher nearby.

Gov. Phil Bredesen suspended four executions last week, calling the document a "cut-and-paste job" that needs significant revision. He set a May 2 deadline for the overhaul.

The mistakes were added last summer when Tennessee decided to update the manual after a death row inmate asked to be electrocuted, Correction Commissioner George Little said. The state's last execution took place in June, before the manual was revised.

Little attributed the errors to poor proofreading.

"This is human error," Little said. "Bottom line, it's in the typing, but certainly not in the carrying out of the actual executions."

The manual's minute-by-minute guidelines for lethal injections includes the instruction: "The Executioner will engage the automatic rheostat." A rheostat controls the voltage flowing to an electric chair.

The guidelines also tell the facility manager to disconnect the electrical cables in the rear of the chair before a doctor checks whether the lethal injection was successful.

Bredesen said Tennessee's execution teams have relied on an "oral tradition" and routine drills have ensured that lethal injections have been given properly.

But the state doesn't want to risk the legal ramifications of a spotty execution protocol, and Bredesen said he wants to make sure future executions aren't botched.

"My attitude toward [the death penalty] is that at some level it's a necessity, but an unpleasant necessity that ought to be done properly and done in a dignified fashion," he said. "And we were at risk of not doing that."

The governor's reprieve came after death row inmate Edward J. Harbison sued the state over its execution procedures. That challenge was based on an earlier version of the manual that did not include the mistakes.

Harbison challenged the kinds of drugs used in lethal injections, the lack of specific guidelines on how to administer them and an absence of required professional standards for the execution team.

The state will evaluate the three-drug cocktail as part of its overhaul of the manual, Bredesen said.

The manual also calls for a doctor to slice deeply into an inmate's limb if technicians cannot insert the catheter into a vein. That procedure has been challenged in other states as cruel and unusual punishment and for violating a doctor's oath not to harm a patient.

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