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Missouri Execution Nurse, Doctor Have Questionable Histories

by John E. Dannenberg

A Missouri nurse employed by the state’s execution team was hired by federal officials to participate in the execution of mass killer Timothy McVeigh at Terre Haute, Indiana in 2001. However, before the nurse could leave the state he had to get permission – from his probation officer.

Nurse David L. Pinkley, 45, was charged in 1998 with felony aggravated stalking and first-degree tampering with prop-erty. Unhappy about a relationship between his estranged wife and another man, he had vandalized the man’s vehicle, flat-tened his mailbox, smashed windows in his house and left voice messages threatening him and his family. Pinkley later pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of stalking and tampering, for which he was sentenced to two years supervised probation and fined $750. After completing the term of probation his case was to be sealed.

Investigative reporters from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dug into state and federal records and determined that both ju-risdictions were aware of Pinkley’s criminal history. Pinkley had told his probation officer what he was doing in Indiana, and showed him a business card for the Terre Haute penitentiary’s warden, Harley G. Lappin (now director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons). When the cautious probation officer phoned Terre Haute, a surprised assistant warden said Pinkley had been recommended by authorities at Missouri’s Potosi Correctional Center – the site of Missouri’s execution chamber.

Pinkley was allowed to travel to Indiana during the period of May 30 to June 30, 2001; McVeigh’s execution took place on June 11. The probation official who approved his request to travel out-of-state to participate in a federal execu-tion apparently realized that decision might be controversial; she wrote in a memo that “It would be extremely problematic for David Pinkley and this department if the media got wind of this.”

Pinkley and federal officials declined to be interviewed by members of the press. Larry Crawford, Missouri’s subse-quent correction’s director, said Pinkley’s probation was related to a “minor misdemeanor” and the court record had later been sealed. He noted that many of Missouri’s 11,000 corrections employees had traffic offenses or minor misdemeanor convictions. Of course, not all of them put prisoners to death.

Pinkley’s case brought to mind a June 2006 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Fernando Gaitan, who suspended all execu-tions in Missouri after it was learned that the state’s principal executioner, Dr. Alan R. Doerhoff, 62, was dysfunctionally dyslexic and had no written protocol for lethal injections. [See: PLN, May 2007, p.37].

Although Doerhoff testified anonymously in the case as a John Doe witness, his identity was later revealed by the Post-Dispatch. Last year the Missouri legislature passed a law protecting the identities of state executioners and making it easier for them to sue for damages if their names are exposed.

Doerhoff, who had supervised 54 executions, admitted that his dyslexia caused him to confuse numbers and adminis-ter incorrect doses of lethal injection drugs by as much as one-half. He had been sued for malpractice on twenty occa-sions; two hospitals had revoked his privileges. Doerhoff was accused of giving false testimony in two court cases, and had paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed he gave her an abortion in a hotel room. Further, he received a public reprimand from the State Board of Healing Arts for failing to disclose his record of malpractice suits. The Attorney General’s office was aware of Doerhoff’s public reprimand because they signed off on it, yet tried to keep his role as state executioner a secret.

When Judge Gaitan suspended executions in Missouri, he specifically prohibited Doerhoff from participating in the le-thal injection process “in any manner, at any level.” In April 2007, Missouri officials discontinued using Doerhoff to oversee state executions. However, that didn’t stop the U.S. Bureau of Prisons from hiring him to impose the death penalty on fed-eral prisoners at Terre Haute. As part of his duties, Doerhoff is responsible for placing intravenous lines into condemned prisoners, monitoring their consciousness levels and signing their death certificates.

Anti-death penalty attorneys arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court referred to Doerhoff as “Dr. Doe, the most well-known example of a jurisdiction entrusting its execution administration to an incompetent individual.” They alleged that Doerhoff had varied the amount of lethal injection drugs based on his whim, without informing anyone. Doerhoff admitted he had cut some doses in half when presented with drug packaging that caused him to “improvise.” Attorney Tyler L. Al-per, arguing for the Death Penalty Clinic at U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, observed that the federal prison sys-tem had hired the very doctor who was banned by a federal judge from performing state executions.

The American Medical Association prohibits members from taking part in executions for ethical reasons, as does the Society of Correctional Physicians. Doctors who act as executioners face a moral dilemma, because killing patients con-tradicts the Hippocratic Oath, in which physicians vow to “do no harm.” Doctors who cross the line and participate in exe-cutions may be ostracized by their peers; thus, it is difficult to find cooperative medical staff. Ironically, it is this dearth of medical professionals that results in botched executions performed by unqualified, untrained prison employees.

Apparently government authorities are willing to overlook and suppress records of professional misconduct – and even criminal conduct – in order to obtain willing executioners such as Doerhoff and Pinkley.

Sources: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The IRE Journal

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