Judge Gregory Rupe denies suit challenging lethal injection

(Photo: Associated Press)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A judge said Wednesday that he did not want to hear any evidence before concluding that lethal injection in Virginia does not amount to practicing medicine without a license.

Richmond Circuit Judge Gregory Rupe commended two Alexandria attorneys for an "imaginative" challenge, but he refused to let their lawsuit go to trial.

Rupe said he could require Department of Corrections officials to appear in court to defend the way they carry out death sentences, but the question would ultimately come down to whether he believes lethal injection is the practice of medicine.

"It is not," the judge said in dismissing the lawsuit filed by attorneys Meghan Shapiro and Christopher Leibig. Shapiro said after the half-hour hearing that she and Leibig "respectfully disagree" with Rupe's conclusion and are considering an appeal.

"General anesthesia is medicine and only medical professionals can legally do it," Shapiro said.

The lawsuit, filed in April, claimed that the methods used by Virginia to execute condemned inmates amount to the unauthorized practice of medicine, pharmacy and anesthesiology.

The plaintiffs and Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said they are aware of no other challenge that has claimed executioners are violating medical licensing laws and regulations.

Richard Vorhis of the attorney general's office argued during the hearing that state law defines medical practice as the diagnosis, treatment or prevention of disease, precisely the opposite of an execution, which is the court-ordered taking of a life. He also said state law requires the Department of Corrections to carry out executions.

Shapiro said the law directs the department to "cause" death sentences to be carried out, suggesting that licensed medical professionals could be used.

Vorhis said doctors likely would refuse to participate because of their Hippocratic oath, but Shapiro said other licensed medical professionals could be employed.

"It is quite feasible to conduct executions in a way that doesn't violate laws of the commonwealth," she said.

Vorhis argued that the plaintiffs are not really concerned about illegal medical practice. "They're trying to shut down the execution process, and they're trying to do it by manipulating the definition of medicine," he said.