Veterinarians opine on lethal-injection methods


Washington - 3/25/08 - Five veterinarians are weighing in on what legal experts consider one of the biggest capital punishment cases to face the U.S. Supreme Court in a generation.

Washington - 3/25/08 - Five veterinarians are weighing in on what legal experts consider one of the biggest capital punishment cases to face the U.S. Supreme Court in a generation.

Drs. Kevin Concannon, Dennis Geiser, Carolyn Kerr, Glenn Pettifer and Sheilah Robertson are named in a brief filed with the high court supporting a death row inmate's assertion that the three-drug cocktail used for lethal injection amounts to cruel and unusual punishment -- a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

At the argument's core is the use of pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes skeletal muscles but not the brain or nerves. In most states that permit capital punishment via lethal injection, it's used to prevent muscle reactions following a dose of sodium thiopental, which renders the prisoner unconscious. Potassium chloride is the final drug administered, which stops the heart.

Filed on behalf of two Kentucky death-row inmates, the case goes beyond whether current lethal-injection protocols, developed in the 1980s to replace electrocution, cause prisoners to die in severe pain. While the case is pending, executions have been halted nationwide. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in on Jan. 7. Officials are awaiting a decision, expected any day.

Critics say pancuronium bromide can "cause severe pain and suffering" and isn't even used to euthanize animals, per American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommendations. The AVMA's 2000 euthanasia guidelines state, "A combination of pentobarbital with a neuromuscular blocking agent is not an acceptable euthanasia agent."

Geiser, a University of Tennessee faculty member, supports the brief, which claims Kentucky's lethal-injection procedures fail to "meet the minimum standards of care used by veterinarians to provide for the humane euthanasia of animals." The brief's supporters argue that pancuronium bromide should be eliminated and that a less painful drug could replace potassium chloride.

"I'm not questioning capital punishment, I'm questioning the way it's done," Geiser explains in an interview with DVM Newsmagazine. "If you're going to take someone's life, you need to do it in a fashion that shouldn't cause pain. I just think there's a better way."

AVMA officials have no plans to weigh in on the litigation. Instead, they vehemently insist that the association's guidelines should not be extrapolated to humans -- a stance outlined in a landing letter issued in 2006. Last year, Dr. Gail Golab, director of AVMA's Animal Welfare Division, filed an affidavit concerning an Alabama lawsuit similar to the case facing the Supreme Court.

"It specifically dealt with the issue of whether the AVMA guidelines covered the scenario the court was discussing," she says. "If you're looking for a model for humane death, veterinary medicine does an amazing job. However, using the model versus applying our specific processes to human medicine is not the same thing."

While Geiser understands AVMA's position, he still wants the profession to take a stand.

"Sure, they don't want to be prescribing what's being done in human medicine, and I think that's right," he says. "But who has the most experience in euthanasia? Veterinarians. Animals react to these drugs in a similar fashion as humans. I do think that veterinary medicine should be consulted. That's where the expertise exists."

AVMA's guidelines carry weight, agrees Greg Dennis, an attorney and American Veterinary Medical Law Association member.

"This is going to be an interesting argument," he predicts. "These guidelines and ethical standards have been used in many cases and can have bearing. They have credibility and have been referred to by the courts and attorney generals on what is the proper method to euthanize an animal."

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