by Ashleigh N. Dye
In an interview published in The State in Columbia on April 26, 2022, a South Carolina physician spoke out for the first time about executing condemned state prisoners — and the toll it has taken on him.
“Death is death, no matter whether it’s by disease, by homicide, whether it’s state sanctioned or murder,” said Dr. Green Neal. “But it’s just, here I am, I’m supposed to be saving people, not killing people.”
Neal kept his experiences to himself for 37 years, never sharing his story with strangers or his family, not even his late brother, state Rep. Joseph Neal (D-Richland County), who passed away in 2017 at age 66.
Then in March 2022, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) revealed it would resume executions and said a doctor would once again need to be present in the death chamber. This time, however, DOC planned to kill the condemned man by shooting him to death with a firing squad — a plan since put on hold by a state judge. [See: PLN, Nov. 2022, p.20.]
DOC confirmed that the doctor in the chamber would be a physician working for the agency and not contracted from outside the department. That left Neal stuck between his duty to his employer and his duty to his profession, which is famously summed up in the Hippocratic Oath “to do no harm.”
From writing prescriptions for lethal injection drugs, to inserting the needle into the vein of the condemned, to pronouncing a person dead, a doctor’s medical ethics are challenged by his presence in the execution chamber. It is also a way to make the death penalty seem more humane, according to Emory University professor Dr. Joel Zivot.
“They’re just there, again, for the show,” he said. “To tell the public, ‘listen, we’ve got this, you know, we’ve got a doctor here. It’s civilized, we’re civilized people.’”
Prior to executing a death row prisoner, it is the doctor’s job to keep him alive and treat his illnesses. But when the appointment with death arrives, the doctor is expected to help kill his patient. Another conflict of interest lies in getting consent from patients for medical treatment, including administration of lethal injections. After all, most of those on death row do not want to be executed. Some states, like Georgia, hire doctors from outside the state DOC to work with executions. However, those physicians face the same moral dilemma.
When Dr. Neal began work at DOC, executions were not a part of his duties. The state went 14 years without executing anyone. Then, when executions resumed and he became involved, Neal had become the medical director, giving him the responsibility of reporting for duty in the death chamber.
Now retired from DOC, the 76-year-old is still practicing medicine, treating elderly, low-income patients who suffer from various medical issues. His days are spent dedicated to extending their lives.
Source: The State
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