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Doctors and Executions

August 09, 1987

In an editorial ("Texas Does It Slowly," July 26), you describe a botched execution of a convicted murderer and ask your readers to "consider whether what was done . . . cruel and unusual or not?"

I agree that taking 35 minutes to find a vein in the condemned man's arm so that the catheter could be inserted and the lethal poison be injected is hardly consistent with the spirit of the U.S. Constitution which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment."

Considering The Times' high standards of professional journalism, what mystifies me is how in that editorial you chose to ask a series of blatantly cruel and unusual questions in print that I think you should have gotten answers to before writing the editorial.

Your question: "And what of the medical doctors who participate in this grisly rite?"

The answer, which I got merely by phoning a colleague at the Texas Medical Assn., is this: "Mr. Charles Brown, assistant director of public information of the Texas Department of Corrections, informed me today that no physician was involved in the recent execution of Elliott Johnson. Nor are Texas Department of Corrections or other physicians involved in any of the state's executions other than to determine death."

The policy of the Texas Medical Assn. is this, "No physician employed by the Department of Corrections or providing professional services to the department under contract shall be required, as a condition of that employment or contractual obligation, to be in attendance at or to participate in executions. 'Participation in executions' shall include not only personal preparation of convicts and the mechanism for their execution, but also supervision of the activities of non-physician personnel. Certification of the death of a convict shall not constitute participation in an execution."

Closer to home, I can assure you that the Los Angeles County and California Medical Assns. share a similar view, and for the record, here is the position of the American Medical Assn., "The AMA believes in individual's opinion on capital punishment is the personal moral decision of the individual. A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution. A physician may make a determination or certification of death as currently provided by law in any situation."

I agree that all of the methods of execution degrade those who implement them. And I repeat that medicine has no part of it.

GARY F. KRIEGER, M.D.

President

Los Angeles County Medical Assn.

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