Doctor barred by state helps in U.S. executions

Times Staff Writer

A doctor who was barred from taking part in executions in Missouri because of concerns his dyslexia would interfere with his ability to administer lethal injections is helping the federal government carry out death sentences in Indiana, according to court documents.

The physician has been the target of more than 20 malpractice suits, was barred from practicing at two hospitals and was publicly reprimanded by a state agency for failing to disclose those suits to a hospital where he treated patients, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The newspaper identified the doctor as Alan R. Doerhoff of Jefferson City, Mo.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr. of Kansas City, Mo., banned Doerhoff from participating “in any manner, at any level” in lethal injections in Missouri.


The judge said earlier he was “gravely concerned” that the doctor responsible for “mixing the drugs which will be responsible for humanely ending the life of condemned inmates, has a condition [dyslexia] which causes him confusion with regard to numbers.”

Federal officials, however, have made Doerhoff part of the execution team at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., according to court papers filed on behalf of several inmates there. All condemned federal prisoners are executed at that prison.

Among those executed there was Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh.

Doerhoff’s role is to place intravenous lines in condemned inmates, monitor their levels of consciousness and sign death certificates, according to the papers.

Doerhoff did not respond to requests for comment, and Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin declined to comment.

Traci Billingsley, U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation and does not make public the names of staff involved in lethal injections.

Washington attorney Paul F. Enzinna, one of the Indiana inmates’ lawyers, also declined to comment.

Doerhoff’s role in federal executions emerged in one of several challenges to lethal injection filed in courts around the country.

Thirty-seven states and the federal government use a three-drug cocktail to execute prisoners: the fast-acting sedative thiopental, a paralyzing drug and a heart-stopping drug.

Although ostensibly more humane than prior execution methods, lethal injection is often performed by untrained, unqualified prison employees using inadequate equipment, creating an unnecessary risk of excessive pain in violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the suits allege.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge to Kentucky’s executions by lethal injection on Jan. 7.

During the court challenges, officials have cloaked Doerhoff’s identity in extraordinary secrecy. In the Missouri case, he was referred to as “John Doe One” and allowed to sit behind a screen during a deposition so that lawyers for condemned inmate Michael Taylor could not see him being questioned.

In the latest challenge, Roane vs. Gonzales, filed in Washington, the inmates’ lawyers refer to Doerhoff as “Protected Person No. 2.” About a dozen lines in the October brief were redacted.

Doerhoff was cited as “Dr. Doe” in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Tuesday in the lethal injection challenge before the Supreme Court.

“The most well-known example of a jurisdiction entrusting its execution administration to an incompetent individual is the infamous ‘Dr. Doe’ in Missouri,” says a brief written by lawyers from the death penalty clinic at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.

The brief contends that even though Doerhoff had played a key role in more than 50 executions, he had not followed written instructions but instead “varied the amount of thiopental he gave inmates on a whim, without informing anyone.”

The Missouri doctor also said that he had cut the thiopental dosage he gave inmates by half because a change in drug packaging forced him to “improvise,” the brief said.

“The federal government chose to rely upon the only person in the country who has been explicitly barred by a federal court from participating in lethal injection executions,” said the brief, written under the supervision of Tyler L. Alper, associate director of the death penalty clinic.

Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno, an expert on capital punishment methods who is closely following the challenges to lethal injection, said that Gaitan, an appointee of President Reagan, issued his order after “a thorough and detailed examination of Dr. Doerhoff’s shocking lack of knowledge of the basic tenets of the drugs and procedures involved in a lethal injection execution, Dr. Doerhoff’s admitted challenges with dyslexia that affected his ability to mix and measure the drugs, as well as his record of more than 20 malpractice suits and revoked privileges at two hospitals.”

Denno said the revelations about Doerhoff illustrated “the need for transparency in the identity of executioners” so that their records could be scrutinized.