Physician Participation in Executing Tyrone Gilliam

by Max Obuszewski
     Gov. Parris Glendening rejected Tyrone X Gilliam’s plea for clemency. As a result, on Nov. 16,1998, I joined with hundreds of others in a vigil outside the Maryland Penitentiary, a Gothic monstrosity that admitted its first prisoner in 1811.
     As we vigiled, Gilliam was strapped down at 10 p.m. inside the pen’s death chamber and a needle was inserted through his skin. Execution commander William Sondervan then ordered the lethal injection. The State of Maryland completed the execution at 10:27 p.m.
     As word reached the vigilers standing behind yellow police tape, I thought of Christine Doerfler, who was murdered in 1988 after Gilliam and two others, who are not on death row, carjacked her. One of them shot her to death in a robbery that netted $3. But Gilliam’s execution cannot bring her back
     I also had to deal with my conscience, which told me not to allow the execution to come down without some gesture of resistance. This was the third time I passively accepted an execution. Gov. William Donald Schaefer finished off the abused and addled John Frederick Thanos in 1994, and Glendening executed Flint Gregory Hunt in 1997.
     All citizens of Maryland who failed to resist the execution are responsible. Of course, the active participants must shoulder most of the blame--Gov. Glendening, Baltimore Circuit Judge John Fader II, who signed the death warrant, and the prosecutors from Baltimore County, State’s Attorney Sandra O’Connor and Deputy State’s Attorney Sue Schenning. To a lesser extent, blame is cast upon Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Stuart Simms, who operates the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and the Commissioner of the Division of Correction, Richard Lanham.
     From an organizing perspective, I argue moral suasion will not work with these bureaucrats, though they should continue to be protested. If there is any hope of saving Kenneth Collins, next scheduled for execution, I would focus on the medical community.
     Such a focus raises serious ethical questions that may influence some movers and shakers. Otherwise, it is likely Collins and the other Death Row inmates--Clarence Conyers, Jr., Jody Lee Miles, Kevin Wiggins, Anthony Grandison, Heath William Burch, James Edward Pert, Wallace Dudley Ball, Jean Alex Clermont, Steven Howard Oken, Wesley Baker, John Marvin Booth, Eugene Sherman Colvin and Vernon Evans--will also be strapped unto that death chamber gurney.
     Physicians as a group hold a valued and sensitive position in society. Their knowledge and skills are to be used in the public interest, and in each patient’s best interests. The medical profession is committed to humanity and the relief of suffering. Society’s trust is shattered, however, when medical skills are used to facilitate state executions.
     This is contrary to the American Medical Association’s ethical opinion: “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.”--1992 Code of Medical Ethics, Current Opinions of the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs of the American Medical Association [article 2.061
     Leonard Sipes, Jr., director of public information for the Department of Corrections, would not reveal the exact role played by physicians in the killing of Gilliam. However, a physician and psychiatrist presumably determined Gilliam, being of sound body and mind, could be executed. Sondervan, assumed to be without medical degree, and his staff, were surely trained by medical personnel. Someone inserted the needle into the prisoner’s vein. A physician must have been present to monitor the heart. After s/he determined the demise of the prisoner, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. John E. Smialek, was called to determine the cause and manner of death.
     In Maryland, mobs once cheered and made the executions festive occasions, so the legislators decided to hide the sordid affairs behind penitentiary walls. To cover up the role of the medical community, the State mandated anonymity.
     The earliest recorded Maryland execution occurred Oct. 22, 1773, when four convict servants were hanged in Frederick for the murder of their master. Since 1923, Maryland performed 83 executions; probably all were men of poor or lower income status. Sixty-four of them were African Americans.
     Hangings were public spectacles, until opposition surfaced, and in January, 1913 executions moved behind jail walls. Later, hanging would be discouraged as a humane method of disposal. So the State used asphyxiation to kill four prisoners. Now lethal injection, since March 25, 1994, is regarded as the more humane method of execution.
     In the U.S., executions have “failed.” Physicians would then revive and resuscitate the prisoner so that the execution could be completed. On January 30, 1930, Jack Johnson was to be hung at the Maryland Penitentiary, but as the trap opened, the rope broke. His limp body was returned to the scaffold, and a fresh rope accomplished the state’s intention.
     In response to physician participation in capital punishment, the American College of Physicians, Human Rights Watch, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Physicians for Human Rights published their conclusions in Breach of Trust:
     (1) Laws should incorporate AMA guidelines excluding physician participation; (2) Violations of medical ethical standards such as anonymity clauses should be eliminated; (3) state medical societies should adopt AMA guidelines against medical participation; and (4) the state medical boards should define physician participation as unethical conduct and take appropriate action against violators.
     Death penalty abolitionists must undertake a crusade with the medical community to work for these recommendations.
     In April 1981, with some apprehension, I toured Auschwitz and entered a Nazi gas chamber, trying to imagine the horror of being locked in before the Zyklon B gas was released.
     It was with similar displeasure that I undertook a tour of Maryland’s death chamber on the Saturday before Gilliam was killed.
     I could not help but make a comparison between the monstrous actions of amoral Nazis and the court-sanctioned activities of anonymous physicians and Department of Corrections employees.

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This story was published on Dec. 2, 1998.