Brain Waves Monitored During N.C. Lethal Injection

Officials overseeing the execution of a North Carolina man on Friday used a device to monitor his brain waves during the lethal injection, to hopefully show that the condemned man didn't suffer undue pain. Rusty Jacobs of North Carolina Public Radio reports that this kind of monitoring is a response to concerns about pain during executions by lethal injection.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

North Carolina today executed a convicted murderer named Willie Brown. He died by lethal injection. For the first time reported anywhere, the executioners used a medical monitoring device to make sure Mr. Brown was unconscious once the procedure began. That's how these executions are supposed to work. Death penalty opponents have been arguing that the condemned may be subdued by drugs, but actually conscious and in pain. The Supreme Court is going to hear arguments in a Florida case next week.

From member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, here's reporter Rusty Jacobs.

RUSTY JACOBS reporting:

At ten minutes to two, prison officials brought Willie Brown to the execution chamber at Central Prison in Raleigh. Brown was given the standard three-drug cocktail used to put condemned prisoners to death. The first drug sedated Brown, the second drug paralyzed him, and the third drug stopped his heart. Brown's lawyer, Don Cowan, witnessed it all.

Mr. DON COWAN (Defense Attorney): I saw a brief gasp. And then they pronounced Mr. Brown dead at 2:11.

JACOBS: A doctor and a nurse were also observing the execution. Typically, a doctor and nurse are on hand to certify the prisoner's death. This time, they tracked the inmate's condition on a device known as a bispectral index monitor. If the monitor showed the prisoner becoming conscious, the doctor or nurse were supposed to tell prison officials to increase the anesthesia. Prison spokesman Keith Acree said that wasn't necessary today.

Mr. KEITH ACREE (State Department of Correction, North Carolina): The execution team administered the sedative and the monitor dropped below the reading of 60, which was the threshold here. No additional sedative was needed before the lethal drugs were administered.

JACOBS: A federal judge threatened to block Willie Brown's execution if the state didn't guarantee the prisoner would remain unconscious during the procedure. So the state brought in the BIS monitor. Anesthesiologist Richard Pollard says the BIS monitor is designed to be used during medical procedures.

Dr. RICHARD POLLARD (President, N.C. Society of Anesthesiologists): It is accepted by the American Society of Anesthesiologists as a device which can be used in adjunct to the clinical skills of a physician, of an anesthesiologist specifically, in determining whether the patient is asleep under general anesthesia or not.

JACOBS: An executive with the company that manufactures the BIS monitor says that had he known the state planned to use it in an execution, he would have prevented the sale. Dr. Scott Kelley, vice president of Aspect Medical Systems, declined an interview request. But in an affidavit, he said the state indicated it was purchasing the monitor for use in operating rooms and intensive care units, not for an execution.

North Carolina's use of the BIS monitor forces a physician to play a more active role in executions. A physician's involvement was the key when this issue came up in California. In February, a judge ruled that convicted murderer Michael Morales could be put to death by lethal injection if a doctor monitored the execution. Three doctors refused. They said participating in an execution would violate their professional ethics.

North Carolina may have found a novel solution to this ethical problem, according to Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for California's attorney general.

Mr. NATHAN BARANKIN (Spokesman, Attorney General, California): But it's one that's based on science, and one that can establish to a great certainty that the goal has been achieved. And that is, an inmate is rendered unconscious and incapable of feeling pain, at the time that the more lethal drugs are injected.

JACOBS: Maryland, Missouri, Virginia, Tennessee. Court battles over lethal injection have flared across the country in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court put a Florida execution on hold, and will hear arguments about lethal injection next week. The North Carolina Medical Board says it will begin discussing the role of physicians in executions next month.

For NPR News, I'm Rusty Jacobs.

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