Doctor behind executions speaks out
Saturday, August 16, 2008
ST. LOUIS -- He owns three Harleys, is a self-described staunch Roman Catholic -- and has helped kill dozens of men. Dr. Alan Doerhoff calls himself the "world's authority on lethal injection."
The 64-year-old Missouri surgeon estimates he's presided over about 40 executions, and said he helped Missouri, Arizona and the federal government modernize their execution procedures.
"Nobody will ever do as many as I have," Doerhoff.
But he also has been banned from participating in Missouri executions by a judge concerned about Doerhoff's admission of dyslexia, which caused him to transpose numbers and make mistakes, though not "medically crucial" errors when mixing the lethal drugs.
Doerhoff, who was sued for malpractice more than 20 times and was reprimanded by the state for not disclosing them, now says he is not dyslexic, but does transpose numbers.
Doerhoff's name was in the news last month when the Arizona Republic reported that he apparently was involved in the May 2007 execution of Robert Comer, Arizona's first execution in nearly seven years. Doerhoff confirmed he presided over that death.
Doerhoff also said he started the IVs and presided at all three executions in 2001 and 2003 at the Terre Haute, Ind., federal prison -- including Timothy McVeigh's, sentenced to die for the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building, which killed 168 people.
"He was the most kind, soft-spoken man, very polite," Doerhoff said of McVeigh, recalling what prison workers had shared about the U.S. Army veteran. "He made his bed, put his clothes on a hanger. He was a career military man, spit and polish to the end."
Doerhoff also was called upon to participate in the 2005 execution of Connecticut serial killer Michael Ross, New England's first in 45 years.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Departments of Corrections in Connecticut and Arizona said they could not identify their execution teams.
Doerhoff said federal and state authorities came to him because they were impressed with the fail-safe, three-drug system Missouri developed under his leadership.
His method delivers the lethal drugs via a central line: a large-bore trauma needle and catheter threaded through a thumb-size vein in the groin, neck or shoulder, and positioned near the heart. The drugs are plunged through the line from another room.
The central line, used in hospital settings, is foolproof, painless and humane, while the more common peripheral intravenous line to the arm, which Connecticut insisted on using, is unreliable and risky, he said.
"It's negligent not to use a central line," he said.
Medical expertise needed
Richard Dieter, executive director of the not-for-profit Death Penalty Information Center, said states recognize they need medical expertise to execute by lethal injection, but doctor-participants are hard to come by.
"It does concern me that not only in Missouri but apparently other states, this is the person they turn to" despite "problems on his resume," Dieter said.
"It does illustrate how difficult it is to find doctors willing to do this," he said.
Doerhoff practiced surgery 20 years in Missouri's prison hospitals before becoming its executioner. Doerhoff advised Missouri on dosages for its new lethal injection machine on George "Tiny" Mercer in 1989, and executed him. In 1995, Missouri again turned to him after errors caused Emmitt Foster's execution to take a half-hour.
Corrections officials called him the next day, wanting help with their public relations problem. He said he conducted every subsequent Missouri execution. The state halted executions in 2006 until reforms were enacted.
Doerhoff said the national debate about lethal injection has mistakenly centered on drugs, which "always work." Failures result from IV malfunctions or misplacement by untrained personnel.
Reassuring the guards
Though his primary role is starting a central line, Doerhoff has helped mix drugs, and reassured nervous guards pressing the drug-release plunger.
"These guys are scared to death, they're shaky," he said. "I assure them I've taken care of everything so that nothing will go wrong. I help them calmly go through the procedure."
Missouri's court-ordered written execution protocol will be tested Aug. 27, when the state conducts its first execution in nearly three years. It calls for 10 to 15 syringes rather than the usual three.
Doerhoff said Missouri's new protocol is overly complicated and potentially problematic.
He said administering the drugs over a longer period of time in various syringes could jeopardize their effectiveness.
Doerhoff, who's had three heart attacks, isn't sure he'll do more executions. But he hasn't slowed down.
"I'm not a boring person," he said, "and I can still read the road signs."