Condemned man's lawyers contend state can't ensure humane execution

Friday, January 21, 2011 at 3:17pm

Lawyers for condemned killer Stephen Michael West argued in court Friday that prison officials cannot ensure he won’t suffer excruciating pain during his execution merely by gently shaking him to check that he’s unconscious before injecting poison into his veins.

Federal public defender Stephen Kissinger said prisoners likely will endure “nothing short of torture” as they are executed, and the state has failed to reduce that risk significantly by adding the so-called check for consciousness to the lethal injection procedure.

But Mark Hudson, senior counsel with the state attorney general’s office, contended the state has succeeded in “negating any plausible risk of severe suffering and pain.”

“The Eighth Amendment does not require the state to eliminate all risk,” he told Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman. “It need only eliminate an objectively intolerable risk.”

Bonnyman said she will rule Feb. 16 whether Tennessee’s new method of execution by lethal injection violates the constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The state Supreme Court is awaiting her ruling before rendering its own decision in the case, which has delayed three executions including West’s.

In lethal injections, a series of three chemicals is used — a barbiturate to make the inmate unconscious, a paralyzing agent to prevent seizures and involuntary gasps of pain, and finally a heart-stopping poison.

West’s lawyers have presented autopsy evidence that they say shows three inmates — Robert Coe, Philip Workman and Steve Henley — didn’t receive enough barbiturate to render them unconscious during their executions in Tennessee.

Before Thanksgiving, Bonnyman struck down Tennessee’s method of lethal injections, ruling the prisoners probably were awake and suffocating in silence before the final chemical even was administered.

State officials tried to overcome her objections by changing the state’s execution protocol — a kind of instruction manual — to include the check for consciousness. The warden would try to make sure the inmate was unconscious after the barbiturate was administered by brushing his hand over the inmate’s eyelashes, gently shaking the inmate or calling out his name.

To Bonnyman Friday, Kissinger called the new procedure “completely unworkable, unfeasible and ineffective.”

West’s lawyers argued in court papers that the warden hasn’t received training to be qualified to perform the check. In addition, the barbiturate used in lethal injections is a fast-acting anesthetic that could wear off at any time during the execution, especially as the pain-inducing drugs are added, they said.

“A deeper level of unconsciousness is required to remain anesthetized against a more severe degree of pain,” their brief said.

West is scheduled to die for murdering a mother and teenage daughter, Wanda and Sheila Romines, in 1986 in the Big Ridge community near Knoxville.

16 Comments on this post:

By: worldwidechuck on 1/21/11 at 3:30

Please! Are you kidding us? Put his but through a wood chipper feet first.

By: dwight14 on 1/21/11 at 4:31

ok,im all for the death penalty...but for the sake of the fact that in the past some innocent people have been wrongfully jailed and or put to death,i find it no harm to just put them to sleep as if they were having surgery...they die and just in case we did kill someone innocent,they didnt feel it...i know...if someone killed someone and they suffered,then i would want that person to suffer b4 they died some cases,tie em spread eagle in the desert buck naked,pour honey on em,then turn loose about a 1000 fireants on their scummy azz's...but like i said,just in case an innocent person is on that gurney,just put em to sleep first...what if? and just think,it could be you who is wrongfully days,if ya dont have the big bucks,murder trials are almost impossible to defend...

By: myopinionismine on 1/21/11 at 4:31

Why should we care if he hurts- did he anesthetise his victims? I think that if we put these people on TV and let them hurt (out loud) maybe the ones following would think before they did anything. JUst think how you would feel if it was someone you were close to or a member of your family- would you care if the person responsible- hurt when they were out to death??? When do we treat murderers the way the deserve?

By: dwight14 on 1/21/11 at 4:38

hey also,some cases r sort of cut and dried like being caught red handed so to speak..but,if we tried to say well this one doesnt deserve to be put to sleep first then we would have every death penalty case tied up forever in court trying to prove that this case does or it would have to be across the board no matter how we would feel about it...but hey,they still die..

By: dwight14 on 1/21/11 at 4:52

do most people live in caves or what? or do some people live with their heads in the sand and dont want to acknowledge that some innocent people have been put to death in our system...i agree most should be tortured even..but,BUT, what about those that really are innocent..its happened before,and more than u think..yes like i posted,id love to and id love to be the one to do love to torture em to no end..countless hrs ...BUT..because it happens,what if,if they were one of those that r innocent..if you say tough,then im talking to an inhumane that doesnt even have the right to voice an opinion...THINK.. what if your husband/wife or father or child was the person that was being put to death and they were innocent..would you want them to suffer a ton of pain? or anyone for that matter? i say no..and since we can never be 100% sure each and every time,each and every time,yeah read that again.then no we shouldnt have them if we could be 100% sure,id be the first in line to do the not some bleeding heart liberal here..i just have a brain and ive studied up on happens people... let someone without a ton of money go to trial for murder and see how many get proven innocent vs those who have deep pockets...its frightening...just google how many people thats been put to death and latter found to be will wake you up..heck 1 is too many...but it happens...wake could happen to you or someone u love or know...
like i said,they still die...guilty or humane about it..they just might be innocent in rare cases...

By: dwight14 on 1/21/11 at 4:56

what about the kid,well he was 17 at the time,that was convicted of rape..even his supposed victim came forth after a few yrs and told em he didnt do it..then his lawyers got the dna samples and still the court wouldnt dismiss the charges...they wouldnt allow it in as evidence..sometimes the system screws up...oh the kid the last i saw on 60 minutes,is now 23 and still in prison..

By: Jwald on 1/22/11 at 2:05

The death penalty should not be considered punishment; therefore the 8th Amendment should not apply. A punishment is something that is enacted in the hope that you learn from it. After you are dead you can learn anything from it. The death penalty is a viable way to remove people from a society that they have proven they cannot or will not be a productive member in and endanger other that are. Having stated, exterminated them in the quickest and cheapest way possible. We should not tie this up in a court of law because think they might feel a little pain. If it is administered right it will be quick, no said death was painless.

By: spooky24 on 1/22/11 at 7:02

The lawyers could care less about this dude. What they care about is $250 an hour the tax payers pay them-for doing nothing really. What is laughable is all the crying hearts liberals against needling this scum have never had homicide happen in their family.
Would you like to see the crime scene photos of what he did to that teenager? How about what he did after she was dead?

It's all about money and lawyers.


By: numenlumen on 1/22/11 at 10:19

This whole question is a perversion of the Constitution. The rohibition of cruel punishment, dating back to the English Bill of Rights, refers to punishments intended to inflict pain. Our history over the last 100-200 years is to make the executions faster and cleaner. That the convicted criminals now want a standard of perfection that involves absolutely no pain whatsoever is understandable, but it is an insult to the Constitution and our history. All this hearing does is delay the adminsitration of justice and make ordinary citizens doubt the socialization of justice. These Boneymen, both Claudia and Gordon, are a plague on Tennessee society. They should be tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail. But wait, that's now become unusual punishment.

What's next, a standard that the condemed piece of manure can't suffer any EMOTIONAL pain?

By: TharonChandler on 1/22/11 at 12:51

Though my next comment would be more appropriate for this article in the NCP about a condemned man on TN death Row (and as i can't find a proper place either here nor on facebook to mention this one); i'd like to say that Chancellor John Morgan makes an excellent, philanthropic, academean (as do the co-appearances by the 2010 Chancellors award Winner and co-presenter and current MTSU president, the nominator). I never had anything against Morgan for the job though i think the entire state administration was lax and misguided for several years.

I would simply want to mention the i had met Mr President Emeritus Snodgrass, in the TN Tower, and it is just a part of very many influential and revered professional administrators wishing the Best for my career, specificly and, over time, them going out of their way to let me know that. It is like a good secret that people don't want to startle someone with though i will eventually need to Grow into it (and even to get paid for that or something).


By: TharonChandler on 1/22/11 at 1:06

From the same paper where i read about Chancellor Morgan and a 2010 award recipient (namely 'The Reader', of Rutherford County, today) i read about a pitiful but not mean looking young man of Shelbyville TN, and then some very senior and serious policemen escorting him to what will be just this side of Hell. I can't imagine what must have been going on at the Tyson processing food plant, to do with grafiity and bomb threats (terrible and reprehensible concepts, no doubt), but i think that it has rendered that young employee, Mr Zack Wilson, his life not merely over but ruined and stressed up and encarcerated and deprived for the rest of the sad years he will have on this earth or in his one and only life (especially as set in the South).

As an enlightened man myself i have seen and heard and read a lot about individual rights and criminal rights and also i have the utmost respect for law-enforcement- authorities and the rights of the others enfringed upon. Yet, they have ruined that kids life and one problem i would want to bring to mind is if that young man's 'recourses' or legal resources have been stolen? What if someone stole his 'power of attorney' so that no matter what the lawyers did to him and whom then in return suid them back; the young man would only lose face and all monies and his life in either situation. That is worth some consideration on high.


By: MetalMan on 1/24/11 at 5:25

There's nothing more humane than the firing squad. That's what we should be using.

By: govskeptic on 1/24/11 at 5:49

There's always another Judge around every corner willing to delay any death penalty case. Whether Federal or State, no matter the reason, there is delay after delay. 20-30 yrs of these delays takes away any deterent factor for the society's benefit.

By: yogiman on 1/24/11 at 8:16

Why can't the officials just say; No, it doesn't hurt. We've never had anyone come back and complain to us, so we know it doesn't hurt.

Then they can offer the lawyer the opportunity to step forward and prove he is right and they are wrong.

Case closed.

By: not_guilty on 1/24/11 at 12:04

Mr. West was convicted of the rape of one of his victims. Do the "eye for an eye" bloodlusters out there suggest that the State should hire a rapist to rape him before the State's executioner injects him with toxic chemicals? Why or why not?

By: jonapple on 1/26/11 at 8:28

All you folks calling for torture of the condemned man, I'm sorry but you're in the wrong country. You need to go back to Iran or some other country that stones people to death under Sharia law. And next time you run a red light or cheat on your taxes you should plan on losing a hand or foot.