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Oklahoma Raises Pay for Execution Doctors From $300 to $15,000 Per Execution, Still Won’t Say Who They Are or What They Do

by Matt Clarke

Before Oklahoma killed prisoners Donald Grant and Gilbert Postelle in early 2022 [See: PLN, May 2022, p.60], the state told a federal court hearing a challenge to their executions that a doctor would be on-hand at each killing for a fee of $15,000.  

That’s quite a jump from the $600 paid to a doctor for two 2016 executions. One of those turned into a 43-minute “bloody mess,” according to then-Warden Anita Trammell of Oklahoma State Penitentiary. In addition to the per-death fee, the state’s execution doctor — who was not named — also receives $1,000 per day for participating in pre-execution training.

Allegedly, the identity and exact role of doctors in executions is obfuscated to protect them from protests by anti-death-penalty advocates. But physicians’ organizations — including the American Medical Association (AMA), American College of Physicians, American College of Correctional Physicians, American Public Health Association, American Society of Anesthesiologists, World Medical Association and several state medical boards — have also declared participation in an execution unethical behavior, for which a member could be expelled.

In a 2019 death penalty challenge heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the AMA filed an amicus brief calling it a “delusion” to think of lethal injection as “somehow scientific — nearly antiseptic.” “The medical profession, whose ‘essential quality’ is an interest in humanity, and which reveres human life should have no part in this charade,” the brief concluded. [See: PLN, Sep. 2019, p.47.]

To help conceal the identity of execution doctors, Oklahoma and several other states pay them in cash. A 2016 BuzzFeed investigation found that IRS forms were not filed for some of these payments, in violation of federal tax laws. The amount of cash that Missouri Director of Adult Institutions David Dormire gave to execution team members between October 2013 and January 2016 totaled $284,551.84.

What that cash buys is controversial as well. Historically, an execution doctor merely confirmed the prisoner was dead and signed a death certificate. That caused little controversy after a hanging or an electrocution, nor when a prisoner went into a gas chamber or before a firing squad.

However, with the “modern” use of injected drugs, execution has taken on the trappings of a medical procedure. Doctors assist in determining lethal drug dosage. They supervise placement of an intravenous needle into a prisoner’s vein. Additionally, execution doctors must verify a prisoner is unconscious prior to receiving a lethal injection, lifting an eyelid or performing a sternum rub, as well as monitoring vital signs.

Giving these physicians a fig leaf, the Georgia legislature passed a law declaring that participating in an execution is not “practicing medicine.” North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety sought a similar declaration from a court. But as the AMA pointed out, doctors are bound by medical ethics no matter the terminology used. 

Additional sources: BuzzFeed, Oklahoman

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