James Gill: Managing complications of capital punishment

Photo provided by the Shreveport Times -- Christopher Sepulvado
Photo provided by the Shreveport Times -- Christopher Sepulvado

The state plans to execute Christopher Sepulvado with a combination of drugs Wednesday that has been used only once before — with horrific consequences.

Prison officials have taken precautions in case anything should go wrong, however. They have arranged for a gynecologist to be in attendance.

They did not originally plan to kill Sepulvado with the experimental formula, but the drug they wanted to use was unavailable. They did their best, though, and tried to acquire it illegally. Meanwhile, they violated their own protocols.

As Gov. Bobby Jindal put it, “The most important thing to us is that justice is served.”

His enthusiasm for capital punishment is not widely shared in Europe, which is unfortunate, because that’s where Louisiana’s first-choice execution drug comes from. Until a few days ago, pentobarbital was the only drug allowed under Louisiana’s “Procedures for Execution,” although its Danish manufacturer, Lundbeck, had refused since 2011 to make it available for that purpose. Louisiana had none in stock.

When emails released under court order revealed that state officials tried to obtain a supply from a compounding pharmacy called the Apothecary Shoppe in Tulsa, Okla., defense attorneys pointed out that it was against state and federal law to import drugs from a company not licensed to do business here.

State officials are supposedly still trying to score some pentobarbital in Louisiana, although their protocol requires them to “verify execution drugs are in stock” 30 days in advance.

With execution day getting uncomfortably close for all concerned, Corrections Secretary James Le Blanc decided a backup plan was required. In a letter to Jindal’s executive counsel, Thomas Enright, last Monday, LeBlanc announced a change to the execution procedures. If no pentobarbital were available, a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone could be substituted.

The state is evidently happy to wing it so long as Sepulvado dies Wednesday.

Sepulvado murdered his 6-year-old stepson in 1992 by bashing his head with a screwdriver and plunging him in scalding water, so he is not likely to evoke much public sympathy. Death-row prisoners never do, but the prospect of a grisly execution is no less repugnant for that.

The state decided to switch to a single dose of pentobarbital after the last convict executed in Louisiana, Gerald Bordelon, was injected with three drugs in 2010. Now that it seems that pentobarbital is no longer an option, Sepulvado is set to become the second American convict dispatched with midazolam and hydromorphone.

After what happened to the first, Dennis McGuire of Ohio, Sepulvado will find the prospect all the more terrifying.

McGuire snorted and gasped before succumbing fully 26 minutes after the drugs started to flow Jan. 16. His family, having witnessed the execution, has filed a lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment. Prison guards accused a defense attorney of persuading McGuire to fake suffocation in order to whip up anti-death penalty sentiment, but he sure couldn’t have expected to linger on the gurney as long as he did. In any case, an investigation concluded that McGuire’s death throes were for real.

However long it takes Sepulvado to die, the attending physician, Jason Haydel Collins, will no doubt be watching closely. Collins’ specialty, according to Corrections Department records obtained by the defense, is obstetrics/gynecology. You have to admire the versatility of a doctor who can alternate between the delivery room and the death house.

A gynecologist may seem an odd choice for this job, but the Corrections Department probably didn’t have that many candidates to choose from. The majority view among doctors, and pharmacists, too, is that their proper role is keeping people alive.

Still the attending physician’s main responsibility is to confirm death, and for that chore, Collins will have the assistance of West Feliciana Deputy Coroner James Groody. If Sepulvado is not dead after 30 minutes — and with these drugs it could be touch and go on that issue — a second dose will be administered. And so on until a flat line is achieved.

Nothing whatsoever to worry about, then. Justice will be done Wednesday and our guys will be ready to handle any hitch.

Correction: Thursday’s column described Tony Guarisco as a former state representative. He was a senator.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.