Valdosta Daily Times

June 24, 2011

Ga. executes inmate convicted of Savannah slaying

The Associated Press

JACKSON, Ga. — A prisoner who was executed Thursday for killing an elderly Savannah woman more than three decades ago appeared to grimace and jerk as he became the first person put to death in Georgia with a drug that the state had not used before.

Roy Willard Blankenship jerked his head several times throughout the procedure and muttered after the pentobarbital was injected into his veins. The 55-year-old’s breathing and movements slowed within minutes, and he was pronounced dead at 8:37 p.m.

He was executed for the 1978 murder of Sarah Mims Bowen, who died of heart failure after she was sexually assaulted in her Savannah apartment. Before the procedure began, Blankenship stammered and then told the warden “I hope to see you again.”

Blankenship’s attorneys claimed in court filings that pentobarbital was unsafe and unreliable, and his attorney Brian Kammer warned that using the drug as the first part of a three-drug combination would risk needless pain and suffering for the condemned man.

State attorneys countered that the claims were unfounded, and said the drug had been used in more than a dozen executions by other states that switched from sodium thiopental amid a nationwide supply shortage. The Georgia Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court agreed Thursday, rejecting Blankenship’s last-ditch appeals.

Blankenship’s supporters also asked the state medical board to revoke the license of Dr. Carlo Musso, who participated in the execution Thursday. The complaint claimed Musso ran afoul of the law by importing sodium thiopental from overseas manufacturers without first registering with state regulators and that he later sold the drugs to officials in Tennessee and Kentucky.

Musso said in a statement released to The Associated Press late Thursday that he is being singled out for “political purposes” and urged critics of the death penalty not to specifically target him. The statement did not directly address the allegations.

“When they fail to make progress with policymakers, groups opposed to capital punishment continue to attack physician licensure as a method to end lethal injection as form of execution,” he said.

Blankenship’s execution was under close scrutiny by state attorneys, death penalty defense lawyers and other observers. He was laughing and chatting with a prison chaplain in the moments before his execution, at one point trying to converse with the observers sitting behind a glass window.

As the injection began, he jerked his head toward his left arm and made a startled face while blinking rapidly. He soon lurched to his right arm, lunging with his mouth agape twice. He then held his head up, and his chin smacked as he mouthed words that were inaudible to observers.

Within three minutes, his movements slowed. About six minutes after the injection began, a nurse checked his vital signs to ensure he was unconscious before the execution could continue. He was pronounced dead nine minutes later. His eyes never closed.

Death penalty critics said Blankenship’s movements were proof that Georgia shouldn’t have used pentobarbital to sedate him before injecting pancuronium bromide to paralyze him and then potassium chloride to stop his heart.

“It is unconscionable that Georgia would experiment with untested and potentially harmful drugs on a human being,” said Kathryn Hamoudah of Georgians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which opposes capital punishment.

Prosecutors had sought Blankenship’s execution for more than 30 years. He was sentenced to death three times in Bowen’s killing.

Her bloody, nude body was discovered by friends and neighbors after the attack, and police were able to trace footsteps to the area where Blankenship lived across the street. They also matched blood scrapings and seminal fluid to Bowen.

At his 1980 trial, Blankenship told jurors that he broke into Bowen’s house and tried to rape her but then bolted when she appeared to wake. He said she was still clothed when he left, and she hadn’t been beaten up.

The jury didn’t buy his account and he was sentenced to die, but the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the sentence a year later. He was re-sentenced to death in 1982, but that sentence was also reversed when the court ruled that Blankenship’s attorneys were restricted from presenting key evidence.

He was again sentenced to die in 1986, but this time state and federal courts upheld the capital sentence.

After his execution was scheduled earlier this year, the Georgia pardons board granted him a temporary reprieve in February to allow for more DNA testing. But it rejected his appeal in June after the tests returned inconclusive.

Georgia joins a growing number of states that have begun using pentobarbital in executions. Many of the nation’s 34 death penalty states switched to pentobarbital or began considering a switch after Hospira Inc., the sole manufacturer of sodium thiopental in the U.S., said in January it would no longer make the drug.

But Georgia has been under particular scrutiny after Drug Enforcement Administration regulators seized the state’s stockpile of sodium thiopental amid questions about how it had obtained the supply. Court records show the state bought the drug from Dream Pharma, a London company. Inmates’ attorneys have called it a fly-by-night supplier that operates from the back of a driving school.