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Medical Perspectives on the Death Penalty

In the study involved in this essay, we consider the medical perspectives on capital punishment, beginning with our own country and then viewing them in other countries where medical developments have recently occurred regarding the death penalty. Following concern about the introduction of an execution method (lethal injection) which threatens to involve doctors directly in the process of execution, the World Medical Association Secretary-General issued a press statement opposing any involvement of doctors in capital punishment.

The 34th Assembly of the World Medical Association, meeting in Lisbon some weeks after the issuing of the press statement, endorsed the Secretary-General’s statement. The Resolution was revised in Edinburgh in October 2000 and now says: ”Resolved, that it is unethical for physicians to participate in capital punishment, in any way, or during any step of the execution process. ” DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) testing is impacting the death penalty. For what is believed to be the first time in US legal history, DNA testing was conducted which had the potential to exonerate a man posthumously.

Ellis Wayne Felker was executed in Georgia, USA in November 1996 after being convicted of rape and murder. Lawyers for Ellis Wayne Felker had gained access some weeks before his execution to the prosecution’s files on his case and found undisclosed evidence which had not been subjected to DNA testing. However the execution went ahead on 14 November. Three newspapers and a television network obtained an order under the Georgia Open Records Act to perform DNA tests even though Mr Felker was dead.

However the tests reportedly proved inconclusive, neither linking Mr Felker to the death nor clearing him of the crime. In another case in Virginia, USA, DNA testing led to the absolute pardon on 2 October of Earl Washington, 17 years after he was convicted of the rape and murder of a woman. He was not released immediately, however, as the state governor declined to set him free decreeing that he should remain in prison to finish serving a 30-year sentence for a separate burglary and assault conviction.

His lawyers contended that had he not been convicted of capital murder, state figures showed that he would have served an average term of 10 to 11 years imprisonment instead of the 17 years he had served. [He was eventually released on parole in February 2001. ] Since 1973 over 90 people who had been sentenced to death in the USA have been proved wrongfully convicted; of those, ten were exonerated as a result of DNA testing.

A poll conducted jointly by both political parties in 2000 showed that when reminded of cases in which death row inmates had ultimately been released on the basis of DNA evidence, 64% of Americans favoured a temporary halt to executions while steps were taken to ensure that the system worked fairly. A key provision under the proposed ”Innocence Protection Act” introduced into Congress in June is a requirement that states establish some legal forum in which death row inmates could bring forward exculpatory evidence from DNA testing, even after the expiration of time limits for new evidence and appeals.

Rejecting a resolution from the American Association of Public Health Physicians, delegates of the American Medical Association (AMA) attending their annual House of Delegates meeting in June refused to endorse a call for a national moratorium on executions. The AMA decided that the death penalty was not a medical issue but a legal one. However they endorsed more use of appropriate forensic techniques such as DNA testing in capital cases. Despite rejecting the resolution on a proposed moratorium the existing policy of the AMA precluding physician participation in executions remains in place.

Lethal Injection in Thailand may be realized soon. In January a bill to change the method of execution to lethal injection was endorsed by the Cabinet of Thailand. The Corrections Department, in order to assess opinions on this change, invited representatives from the Justice Ministry, the Department of Probation, the Institute of Forensic Medicine, the National Police Office, the University Affairs Ministry and the Public Health Ministry to a meeting in March to discuss the proposal.

However medical officials from the Public Health Ministry refused to discuss the issue of the execution of criminals by lethal injection, deeming the topic to be a gross violation of medical ethics. General support for the proposal however was given by the Justice Ministry, the Department of Probation, the Institute of Forensic Medicine, the National Police Office and the University Affairs Ministry.

The Public Health Ministry also maintained that – taking into account medical ethics – health professionals could not teach Corrections Department staff how to give lethal injections. Dr Supachai Khunnarattenapruek, Deputy Permanent Secretary and Secretary-General of the Medical Council said the Council wished to distance itself from participating in any debate on the topic. He also rejected the suggestion that organs of criminals be used in transplants, maintaining that the taking of organs ”was not the business of physicians”.

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