Ohio considering bone, muscle for lethal injection
By Stephen Majors
COLUMBUS, Ohio Ohio is considering injecting lethal drugs into inmates' bone marrow or muscles as an alternative to - or a backup for - the traditional intravenous execution procedure, a prisons department spokeswoman said Tuesday.
"Everything is on the table" as the state researches ways to adjust its death chamber procedure in the wake of a failed execution last month, when officials couldn't locate suitable veins on inmate Romell Broom, said Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spokeswoman Julie Walburn.
Broom's execution is on hold at least until a federal court hearing takes place on Nov. 30. Gov. Ted Strickland issued reprieves for two other death-row inmates on Monday, saying that more time is needed to study the execution procedure.
The changes could include a different procedure to access veins, the use of a device to inject lethal chemicals directly into an inmate's bone marrow, or injection into muscles.
"We don't believe that this exam or the reprieve are a reflection of the skills and ability of our team," Walburn said. "This was a rare and exceptional circumstance, but we want to make sure we have a contingency plan if this were to reoccur."
Richard Dieter, director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said he isn't aware of any other states that have considered, or currently use, injections into bone marrow or muscle.
Ohio's current procedure gives officials as much time as they need to locate suitable veins, but other states have procedures for dealing with inmates in such circumstances.
In Kentucky, the execution team can only try for one hour. Other states, including Florida, allow for a procedure in which the team cuts the skin to find a vein.
Ohio officials also are exploring whether to keep the state's three-drug regimen - a sedative, a paralyzing agent and a chemical to stop the heart - or to rely on a single drug, Walburn said. It could be used as a backup if officials encounter difficulty locating veins, or as a new procedure to replace the old one.
Drawing up new procedures could be challenging in several respects, including a potential need for greater medical expertise that accompanies more sophisticated techniques.
Injecting chemicals into bone marrow with an instrument that quickly thrusts needle through bone or injecting them into muscle raises the likelihood of pain. Muscle absorbs drugs less quickly and it's harder to numb bone to alleviate pain.
Such techniques could lead to what one doctor referred to as the "Hippocratic paradox," in which doctors are needed to oversee the procedure but can't do it because of ethical constraints. Causing pain to save a life is considered therapeutic while causing pain in death is considered "torture," said Dr. Jonathan Groner, professor of clinical surgery at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
"My impression is searching for a greater and increasingly sophisticated medical technique in order to kill someone can cause the governor to paint himself into a corner," Groner said.
Broom complained in an affidavit following the execution attempt that execution staff painfully hit muscle and bone at times during up to 18 attempts to reach a vein.
Significantly changing the execution protocol also subjects the state to more legal risk, as a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Kentucky's lethal injection process gave cover only to those states whose processes were essentially the same as Kentucky's.
"States are all reluctant to make a change because they'd rather stick to what they know and changes mean new challenges of whatever changes you make," Dieter said.
Officials were able to locate Broom's veins during his Sept. 15 execution attempt, but the veins collapsed when a saline solution was administered to test whether they could accept the flow of the lethal drugs. Broom, who was convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing a 14-year old girl in 1984, later said he was stuck with a needle as many as 18 times, including painful sticks into his muscle and bone.
Officials have had difficulty locating suitable veins in at least two other executions.
Strickland stopped Broom's execution after two hours, an unprecedented order since the United States resumed executions in the 1970s. Ohio has put 32 people to death since 1999, when executions resumed in the state.