Newspaper: Nurse with criminal record worked on Mo. executions

Monday, January 14, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- A Missouri executioner was allowed to carry out his work even though he had a criminal record of his own.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday that the nurse even joined a federal team that executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, even though the nurse's superiors knew he was on probation.

Before McVeigh's 2001 execution, the Missouri nurse had to get his probation officer's permission to travel to Indiana as part of the execution team. That request led at least one supervisor to write to an administrator with the Missouri Division of Probation and Parole.

"As I stated to you previously, it seems bizarre to me that we would knowingly allow an offender, on active supervision, to participate in the execution process at any level," the supervisor wrote in a memo obtained by the Post-Dispatch.

That memo and other documents show that federal and state corrections officials allowed the nurse to make the trip and continue to work on Missouri's lethal-injection team, although the Post-Dispatch said it is not clear whether the nurse actually attended McVeigh's execution.

The nurse's criminal background -- he had pleaded no contest to misdemeanors of stalking and tampering with evidence -- raises further questions about those who carry out capital punishment.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that Dr. Alan Doerhoff of Jefferson City could not participate in Missouri's lethal injection process because of concerns about the surgeon's dyslexia and lack of expertise.

Lethal injection is on hold in 35 states and in the federal system while the U.S. Supreme Court considers arguments in a Kentucky case. Lawyers challenging the procedure contend it can cause excruciating pain if done wrong, violating the constitutional protection from cruel or unusual punishment.

Missouri prison officials say it's difficult to find qualified medical professionals to work at executions. Most medical professional organizations, including the American Medical Association, ban members from participating.

Larry Crawford, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, said Missouri was diligent in using medical personnel to assist with executions even though it doesn't have to. He emphasized that prison staff, not medical people, administer the drugs that are used in the execution process.

Although Crawford would not discuss the execution nurse by name, he noted that the relevant court records involved "minor" misdemeanors and were sealed. Because a judge gave the nurse a suspended sentence, the record of the conviction was sealed once he had completed probation.

The Post-Dispatch identified the nurse, in spite of a new state law that prohibits "knowingly disclosing the identity of a current or former member of an execution team." The law was passed after the Post-Dispatch identified Doerhoff.

Editor Arnie Robbins said identifying executioners brings important transparency to the process.

"We believe the law is unconstitutional, and we also believe it stifles public discussion and hinders governmental accountability," Robbins said in an editor's note published Sunday.

The Associated Press chose not to identify the nurse because a reporter could not contact him. The man's home phone number was disconnected and his employer refused to comment or make the nurse available.

No one has publicly questioned the competence of the nurse, who works at a hospital. Memos from the probation and parole division describe his "special knowledge, skills and abilities" as "one of a kind."

The Post-Dispatch said it's not clear when the nurse began working on state executions or how many he attended. According to the documents, the warden at the state prison in Potosi, Mo., recommended the nurse for the federal execution team, established in 2000.

The nurse had been charged in 1998 with felony aggravated stalking and first-degree tampering with property after allegedly threatening a man and repeatedly vandalizing his vehicle and home over a relationship the man was having with the nurse's estranged wife.

The nurse maintained in court that he did not stalk anyone or cause any damage, but he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor counts of stalking and tampering with property. He was ordered to serve two years of probation and pay the victim $750.

He has no other known criminal record.

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