Washington prison doctor quits over death penalty
The top doctor in the Washington Department of Corrections has resigned, saying the use of medical staff to prepare for an execution is unethical.
The state Department of Corrections' top medical officer has resigned, saying that the use of agency staff members to prepare for an execution is unethical.
Dr. Marc Stern, who lives in Olympia, said the American Medical Association and Society of Correctional Physicians oppose physician involvement in executions, "and they say physicians should not supervise somebody who is involved in executions."
"The only way out we found was for me to recuse myself, and the only way I could recuse myself was to resign," he said.
The agency had been set to execute Darold Ray Stenson, convicted of murder, this month. The execution has been postponed.
Stern said he supervised about 700 people in prisons and other corrections facilities statewide. He said at least one of the people he supervised had been involved in execution preparations at Walla Walla State Penitentiary.
He told his superiors that he objected to his division's involvement, but no solution was found, he said.
Scott Blonien, assistant secretary of the department, characterized Stern's objections as more individual than professional.
"It's clear to us that Marc had a personal, ethical conflict, and we respect that. There's nothing we would want to do in the department to cause someone to commit a violation of their personal ethics," he said.
Taking part in an execution is voluntary for all department employees — a policy found in other states and the federal prison system, Blonien said. That policy was in place in 2001, the last time an execution was held in Washington, he said.
The American Medical Association says physicians shouldn't take part in "an action which would assist, supervise, or contribute to the ability of another individual to directly cause the death of the condemned."
Stern declined to say what action by his subordinates concerned him.
Blonien said Stern had expressed concern that the department did not have authority to get the drugs used for a lethal injection. Blonien added the agency checked with the Attorney General's Office and thinks it has authority to acquire and use the drugs under the law that authorizes injection as a form of execution.
No other department worker has resigned or complained about the pending execution, although outside groups have protested it, Blonien said.
"The department understands that some people have some strong personal, philosophical issues with regards to the death penalty," he said. "Folks have the option of opting out."
Stern stressed that he was not angry with agency executives, but he felt involving any of his staff members was wrong.
He wasn't with the agency last time an execution was conducted in Washington, and his position expanded three years ago to include administrative authority over health workers, he said. In previous executions, penitentiary medical staff would report to the prison superintendent.
Stern said the ethical conflict isn't personal.
"This has nothing to do with my personal opinion of the death penalty. It has strictly to do with the recognized professional ethics," he said.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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