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Pathologist says Ricky Gray's autopsy suggests problems with Virginia's execution procedure

Pathologist says Ricky Gray's autopsy suggests problems with Virginia's execution procedure


Lawyers for William C. Morva unsuccessfully sought to delay his execution Thursday night following the reported concerns from an expert about Ricky Gray’s execution by injection in January.

An article published in The Guardian on Wednesday cited a review of Gray’s autopsy report by Dr. Mark Edgar, associate director of bone and soft tissue pathology at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Edgar concluded that something appears to have gone wrong under Virginia’s three-drug method.

Edgar said a frothy liquid found in Gray’s upper airways indicated that he suffered an acute pulmonary edema and that blood found on his lips indicated that blood entered Gray’s lungs while he was still breathing. The Guardian reported that Edgar could not be certain about the cause of the edema, but said it would be similar to drowning.

Reached Friday, Edgar told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “I cannot know how the executioners intended or expected the drugs to work. If they expected them to cause rapid and uncomplicated death ... without the possibility of a lingering sense of panic and terror, then they did not get what they expected.

“The anatomic changes described in Ricky Gray’s lungs are more often seen in the aftermath of a sarin gas attack than in a routine hospital autopsy. This is of concern especially given the fact that midazolam is not an anesthetic, but a sedative often used for medical procedures requiring conscious sedation and the issue that the compounded drugs used in this case may have lacked potency or been impure,” he said.

Gray’s family obtained the official post-execution autopsy, The Guardian reported. Virginia’s medical examiner’s office conducts autopsies of executed inmates.

“This way of dying is intolerable. You can’t control your breathing — it is terrible,” said Edgar, according to The Guardian. “When it is this severe, you can experience panic and terror and, if the individual was in any way aware of what was happening to them, it would be unbearable.”

Because of the unavailability of manufactured drugs for executions, Virginia uses compounded midazolam and compounded potassium chloride — made by an undisclosed Virginia pharmacy or pharmacies — as the first and third drugs in executions. According to lawyers for Gray and Morva, Virginia is the only state to use a combination of two compounded chemicals in lethal injections.

State law bars the disclosure of the pharmacies making the drugs.

The first drug is intended to render the inmate unconscious, the second to stop breathing and the third to stop the heart.

Rob Lee, one of Morva’s lawyers, said McAuliffe was asked for a temporary reprieve at 5 p.m. Thursday, less than three hours after the governor turned down Morva’s bid for clemency.

“The reprieve was requested after new information came to light raising concerns that Virginia’s lethal injection protocol did not act as intended, and therefore had resulted in a lingering and tortuous death,” Lee said in a prepared statement.

He added, “We believed a reprieve was appropriate to allow time for further investigation to ensure that the Commonwealth carries out future executions — including Mr. Morva’s — in a manner that avoids unnecessary pain and suffering.”

A McAuliffe spokeman confirmed Friday that the governor denied the request for a temporary reprieve.

“Earlier in the day, he had stated his intention to allow the execution to proceed without his intervention. That statement was based on his review of the case as well as his confidence in the protocol the Department of Corrections used to carry out this sentence,” said Brian Coy, the spokesman.

The Department of Corrections and other state officials have said they are confident in the purity and efficacy of the periodically tested chemicals used in executions.

Morva’s 9 p.m. execution at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt on Thursday, according to the Department of Corrections, was carried out without complications, and he was pronounced dead at 9:15 p.m.

After the midazolam was administered Thursday, Morva made a loud noise that sounded similar to a hiccup, and there were several sharp contractions of his abdomen.

The department said Gray’s execution in January was complicated by difficulties in placing IV lines. The procedure, which usually takes a few minutes, took more than half an hour.

Morva was executed for killing two people during an escape in Montgomery County in 2006. Gray, who murdered seven people in seven days in Richmond in 2006, was executed for the capital murders of two young sisters.

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