Complaint cites Georgia doctors who took part in executions

In a refiling with the state medical board, a group of physicians has asked that the participating doctors be punished.

By Mike Norbut — Posted July 4, 2005

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A group of physicians from around the country have refiled a complaint against Georgia doctors who participate in state-ordered executions. The complaint alleges the physicians' actions are a breach of medical ethics codes and requests the doctors be disciplined.

The group, made up primarily of academic physicians, originally filed a complaint last fall with the Georgia Composite State Board of Medical Examiners. It was rejected because the complaint made an error in describing state law, said Gerry Weber, an Atlanta-based attorney who is representing the doctors in the refiling process. The new complaint also was filed with district attorneys in three Georgia counties, requesting they investigate three named physicians and other doctors who have been involved with executions by lethal injection.

The complaint cites the American Medical Association's Code of Medical Ethics, which opposes physician involvement in state executions. The policy was first issued in 1980.

While the policy does not outline a specific stance on capital punishment, it is explicit in prohibiting physician participation, which it considers to include attending or observing an execution, prescribing or administering tranquilizers as part of the procedure, and monitoring the inmate's vital signs. Actions not considered physician participation include certifying death after someone else already has declared the condemned person dead and witnessing the execution in a nonprofessional capacity, such as when it's done at the voluntary request of the inmate.

"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," the policy reads.

Arthur Zitrin, MD, a retired New York University psychiatrist, said the complaint stems from a Georgia court case in 2002 which challenged the state's death penalty law. At hearings for the case, three physicians testified, acknowledging they participated in executions, Dr. Zitrin alleges.

Dr. Zitrin said he's hoping the board will conduct an investigation and find "as I believe they should, that there has been a violation of medical ethics and Georgia law, and they will impose some sort of penalty on the doctors."

Internist Timothy Harden Jr., MD, one of the physicians named in the complaint, said he worked at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson between 1993 and 2004, when he retired. He said he was involved with executions, but his duties were limited to performing "cavity checks" prior to the execution, administering a tranquilizer if the inmate requested it, and declaring the person dead.

"I didn't feel like I was participating," said Dr. Harden, who added he wasn't aware of the complaint. "If someone had told me then not to do it or I could lose my license, I wouldn't do it."

Two other physicians named in the complaint could not be reached for comment.

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