Week of 7.14.06
Web-Extended Interview: "Nurse Karen"
This Week: Do No Harm? | Web-Extended Interview: "Nurse Karen" | Perspectives: Doctors Speak Out | Article: When Law and Ethics Collide | Timeline: Death Penalty Milestones | Facts & Figures: Capital Punishment | Interview: Bunnatine Greenhouse | TranscriptSenior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa spoke with "Karen," a nurse, about her participation in 14 executions at a prison in Jackson, Georgia. Karen, who did not want her identity disclosed for fear of retribution, has worked as a nurse for 26 years.
HINOJOSA: What is it like in an execution chamber?
KAREN: It almost feels like an operating room because it kind of has a chill in the air. It's just a simple gurney in there, and there's a Plexiglas window where witnesses are on the other side of the window and benches that look like church pews. That's where the witnesses sit and can actually look through the window and see the inmate on a gurney.
HINOJOSA: What exactly is your role in the execution?
KAREN: Once the inmate is actually brought in and strapped on a gurney then we go in and, just like you would do with any patient in the hospital, you treat them just like a patient. We've always addressed them and talked to them and told them exactly what we're going to do. You put the tourniquet on. You use your alcohol to help cleanse the area and insert the IV catheter into the site ... tape it down and then hook up just regular IV fluids into the site. Then we leave them hooked up to regular IV fluids and then leave the area.
HINOJOSA: And in that moment when you're finding the vein, what are you thinking?
KAREN: At that time, I'm just looking at it as an IV that needs to be started. We normally carry on a conversion with the inmate. And they have always been very nice. A lot of times some of them would even make a comment 'that didn't hurt like I thought it was going to.' So they're just like regular patients laying there. Even if you're putting somebody to death, you want it to go as quickly and as painlessly as possible because you're trying to show respect for that person still.
HINOJOSA: And where do you go at that point?
KAREN: Just back behind the curtain. After, they get everything else set up, read the death order and bring in any witnesses. Then they start the injections ... and everybody from you prison officials, your state officials that are around, your officers that are there, everybody is very quiet throughout everything ... Death comes so quickly. You're talking about from the start of the injection until the end, six, eight minutes at most ... And then you just kind of leave and it's over ... You don't do a lot of thinking about it.
Even if you're putting somebody to death, you want it to go as quickly and as painlessly as possible...
HINOJOSA: What are the conversations like among the medical personnel who are in the room before the injection and after?
KAREN: During the time when we're waiting we're actually talking about anything and everything else. You're not focusing on what's going to happen. You know, we may talk about what we just had for supper. Or you talk about what was going on at the job you just left, talk about your family. You just have normal conversations.
HINOJOSA: What about nurses or doctors who say the Hippocratic Oath says that medical professionals should never do any harm to any patient. And by participating in an execution of somebody who, perhaps, doesn't want to be killed, then you're doing harm to that person. You're not caring for the patient.
KAREN: I look at them at an execution as [going through] a terminal illness. At the time that they were sentenced, they were diagnosed with a terminal illness. When they go through all of their appeals and everything, that's just like going on any kind of chemotherapy, radiation, whatever. And if all their appeals fail, then basically it's their terminal illness coming to an end. And therefore, I think it's with any patient, they need to have the dignity up until the very end. And I think that dignity is by having actual trained people to help them.
HINOJOSA: So would you have an issue if you didn't just have to insert the IV but if you had to push the button to get the poisons into their system? Would that be a problem for you?
KAREN: I would not want to actually do the injections.
KAREN: I guess it's very strange because I don't know what the real big difference is ... I don't mind actually inserting the lines because that is something that I have been trained to do. But as far as administering an overdose, I just wouldn't want to do that.
HINOJOSA: So for you, there are some ethical issues?
...as far as administering an overdose, I just wouldn't want to do that.
HINOJOSA: And how, when you're thinking about this, when you're alone and you're contemplating this, how do you figure it out in your mind.
KAREN: I believe in the death penalty and I do believe that by the time it comes time for somebody to actually have the injection, you know, they have been through all their appeals. But I think that that's something that should actually be done by someone in the prison system.
HINOJOSA: Because giving someone an overdose for you, as a nurse, means what?
KAREN: That's just not something you're supposed to knowingly do.
HINOJOSA: When people say to you, you know what, Karen, as a nurse, you have simply become an agent of the state. And the state is using your skills for the purpose of the state which is to kill someone. You say?
KAREN: Basically, I don't feel that way. And I'm a nurse in so many other ways. And even though, maybe, a couple of times a year I do work for the state and help them to carry out executions I don't feel that makes me any less a nurse or any less a person. I mean, somebody's got to do it. And I just believe that it's something that I'm almost called to do because I do have the skills.
HINOJOSA: I know it's a difficult question, but do you consider yourself an executioner?
KAREN: No, I don't. I don't know that I consider anybody an executioner. Even the people that I know who push the drugs I don't consider them an executioner either. I look at it as the state is the executioner. We're just carrying out procedures.
HINOJOSA: Tell me about the one execution that was, in fact, difficult for you.
KAREN: There was one particular inmate who actually, after his crime, had been converted to Christianity and was very vocal about it. But, at the time of his execution, when he gave his last words, all of his last words were of compliments to the prison, to the officers who had been with him through the years and had treated him as a person. He went on to say that even though he had been saved and he knew he was going to heaven that he did know that God expected him to take his punishment for the crime that he had done ... and that man's punishment for the murders that he committed was for him to be put to death. So he was willingly taking it.
I look at it as the state is the executioner. We're just carrying out procedures.
There were tears in everybody's eyes, even all the officers. You know, these big guys that you thought probably never would even think about crying and especially about an inmate. There wasn't a dry eye ... you felt good about it because he was so willing to accept his punishment ... it was just one that you'll always remember.
HINOJOSA: Have you been harassed because you've taken part in executions?
KAREN: My personal harassment has been minimal compared to other people that I actually worked with in the executions ... Some of the doctors actually had notes put on their cars, calls made to their office all different kind of calls calling them murderers. Most of it just went as far as phone calls and notes but you still don't know if people will go to that extent, what all else they will do.
HINOJOSA: We spoke to five of your former colleagues, doctors who took part in executions. None of them were willing to speak to us even if we gave them anonymity. Does that surprise you?
KAREN: Not really because of the harassment that some of them have gotten I can understand that they would be afraid that it would hurt their private practice. I think, more than anything, they are afraid of how some of their patients would respond to it. Not knowing how everybody feels that they would be afraid that some of their patients would be offended because of some of the publicity that has been out there.
HINOJOSA: What is the thing that you ultimately would fear the most if you were talk about this publicly and show your face?
KAREN: That the people that I work with now as far as patients and patients' families and things like that, that there would be someone that would look on it that I was a killer. "How can you care for my family member and, you know, this is what you do." In the area that I live, the majority of people are very supportive but for that reason I just prefer not to be known to people that really don't know me.