Uncomfortably Numb

Lethal injection looks painless and peaceful. On Missouri's death row, appearances can be deceiving.

In some instances, patients have awakened during surgery. "There are reports of patients who will tell you after an operation what was said during surgery," notes Walter Boyle, a professor of anesthesiology at Washington University's School of Medicine. And woe to the patient in such circumstances who has been given Pavulon. "You can just imagine how horrible it would be, because once they inject you [with Pavulon], you can't move or breathe without a respirator," says Boyle. "Who knows what that's like -- what your body does with that information?"

Carol Weihrer of Reston, Virginia, knows exactly what it's like. "I was fully awake and aware for between forty minutes and two hours while my right eye was surgically removed," Weihrer asserted in a written statement to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on August 25 of this year. Weihrer testified that though anesthesiologists gave her an induction dose of sodium pentothal, they neglected to give her a longer-acting barbiturate. She awoke on the operating table, paralyzed.

"I remember the intense pulling on my eye, the spine-chilling instructions of the surgeon to the resident to 'cut deeper here, pull harder; no pull harder, you really have to pull.' I remember fighting with every ounce of energy and thought process I had to let the surgical team know I was awake," Weihrer testified. "I remember wondering if I were following the heat of the proverbial light to Heaven (since they had removed my eye) or whether I were lying on the coals of Hell -- and the most haunting to me, a person of great faith, to this day the willingness to sell my soul just to get off that table."

Susan Sanford
Jennifer Silverberg

But while patients have awakened during surgery, anesthesiologists say it's an exceedingly rare occurrence -- and one that becomes less likely with higher doses of sodium pentothal. "Those are typically ill patients who you have to give a very low level of anesthetic," says Kyle Janek, an anesthesiologist who's also a Texas state senator. "You're going to hear that testimony. But it is never in the context of someone who's had [a much larger] dose of [sodium] pentothal."

Of the nine states that specified dosages in Deborah Denno's 2002 study, Montana administers the smallest dose of sodium pentothal: 500 milligrams -- or roughly twice the typical surgical dose for a 180-pound person. California and North Carolina administer the most: five grams -- or twenty times the typical surgical dose.

"The idea that someone's awake after receiving that dose just makes no sense whatsoever," says Janek, who supports the death penalty. "The simple, irrefutable hard fact is that combination of barbiturates and neuromuscular blocking agents have been the staple of anesthesiology in this country for decades. If what they're saying is that what we're doing is cruel and unusual to the 80 to 90 patients in our operating room a day, well, then that would be a real story: We've got a litigation problem on our hands."

After a meal of shrimp, catfish, French fries, a strawberry milk shake and lemon meringue pie, Emmitt Foster was strapped to a gurney and became the twelfth person to die by lethal injection in Missouri. The year was 1995 and Foster had been condemned for murdering his softball teammate, Travis Walker, during a 1983 robbery.

The night before his execution, everything went as planned. Foster had no visitors. He invited no witnesses.

But seven minutes after technicians began the lethal-injection process, the death chamber went black.

"I could see that he was still breathing," recalled Brad Farrell, a reporter for the Missourinet radio network, in a subsequent newspaper article. "Foster was gasping, slightly convulsing when the blinds were drawn."

According to a 1997 survey conducted for the Florida senate by the Committee on Criminal Justice, the Missouri Department of Corrections estimates that it takes an average of fifteen minutes from the time a condemned prisoner's arms and legs are bound to the gurney to the time the inmate is pronounced dead. In Emmitt Foster's case, one leather strap was cinched too tight, impeding his blood flow. It was not until twenty minutes after the chemicals had begun to flow that prison workers loosened the strap. Washington County coroner William "Mal" Gum pronounced Foster dead 29 minutes after the first chemical entered his veins.

Three minutes later the blinds were reopened.

"It's not like the guy suffered," Gum told reporters, terming the delay "a little error." But the execution quickly became a cause célèbre among death-penalty opponents. An editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch termed Foster's death "a particularly sordid chapter in Missouri's capital punishment experience," and inmates on death row quickly filed a class-action lawsuit seeking an injunction.

The suit was unsuccessful. From 1989 to 2003, the state executed 61 inmates by lethal injection. (State statutes continue to allow lethal gassing, but the last inmate to die by that means was Lloyd Leo Anderson, in 1965.) Today 56 inmates remain on Missouri's death row, although no execution dates are currently pending.

Michael Gorla, an attorney for Timothy Johnston, has filed papers in federal court requesting that the corrections department divulge its execution protocols. So far, has gotten nowhere. "The only thing I've found is the sequence of sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide [Pavulon] and potassium chloride," reports Gorla, who is representing Johnston along with co-counsel Christopher McGraugh.

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