Warden to Check Consciousness in Execution

By Molly Farrell


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP/UTC) — Prison warden Ricky Bell says he is prepared to check an inmate for consciousness during an execution despite a lack of medical training.

His qualifications to ensure the inmate is properly sedated will be at the center of court hearings in Davidson County Chancery Court. The hearings were ordered by the Tennessee Supreme Court after all scheduled executions were put on hold.

Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman last month decided the current three-drug method of execution put inmates at risk of death by suffocation during a legal challenge brought by death row inmate Stephen West.

In response to Bonnyman’s concerns that the inmate may still be conscious, the state added a provision that would require the warden to perform checks for consciousness during the process.

The Tennessee Supreme Court put West’s execution, scheduled for last Tuesday, on hold as well as upcoming executions for three other inmates while Bonnyman considers whether the warden is qualified to determine whether an inmate is unconscious.

Bell, who is the warden at Nashville’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution where Tennessee executions are carried out, told The Tennessean he is comfortable with the change required by the court, which would have him brush his hand over an inmate’s eyelashes and gently shake the inmate.

“I feel comfortable that I can do what the court has asked of me,” Bell said. “Our staff just adjusts to what we’re asked when it comes to the executions. It’s something that we do. It’s in our mission.”

West’s attorneys argued during hearings held last month that three-drug lethal injection procedure does not adequately anesthetize prisoners, violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Bonnyman said in her ruling that the 5 grams of sodium thiopental, the first drug meant to render the inmate unconscious, was insufficient. She said the state should adopt some method to determine whether the inmate was awake before being injected with the second drug, a paralyzing agent.

Under the new rules, if the warden determines the inmate is still conscious after the first injection, he will order a second injection of sodium thiopental.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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