Capital Punishment Committee Presents Norman Redlich Special Recognition Award to Dr. Arthur Zitrin

By William M. Erlbaum

As part of its Annual Post-Conviction Capital Defense Training Program on July 25, 2017, the Committee on Capital Punishment of the New York City Bar Association presented its Norman Redlich Special Recognition award to Dr. Arthur Zitrin, a longstanding member of the Committee, presently enjoying emeritus status. Dr. Zitrin suggested the writer to be the person to introduce and confer the award upon him on behalf of the Committee, and it was my honor to do so.

In or about 2000, our then-Committee Chair, Norman L. Greene, invited Dr. Zitrin to become a member of the Committee, and, fortunately, he accepted. Although not an attorney, Dr. Zitrin had long advocated against capital punishment, had created educational programs that raised consciousness about the horrific experiential aspects of lethal injections, and, substantively, worked toward the same goal as the Committee — the elimination of the punishment of death.

Dr. Arthur Zitrin 
Dr. Arthur Zitrin with his tribute from the legal community.

Dr. Zitrin is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine (NYUSOM). From 1955 through 1968, he was the Director of Psychiatry, Bellevue Hospital. As his avocation, he has produced documentary films on social history, the history of medicine, and women’s history. His published writings cover a wide array of subjects, including the work of Sigmund Freud, child abuse, psychiatry as a profession, the effects of television upon children, crime and violence among mental patients, suicide prevention, animal studies, childhood mental disorders, delirium tremens, and transsexuality.

One of the accomplishments of which Dr. Zitrin is most proud is his co-founding in 1973 of the monthly Bioethics Colloquium at the NYUSOM. For the next 27 years he served as its Chair. The successor Chair was Dr. Loren Greene, wife of Norman L. Greene, Chair of our Capital Punishment Committee at the time. Dr. Greene describes the colloquium as “the first medical colloquium in medical ethics in the country and perhaps the world.” It was Dr. Greene who suggested to her husband that Dr. Zitrin, if invited to join the Committee, would likely make important contributions to its work and to the death penalty abolition movement. It has proven to be a very providential suggestion.

When Arthur joined the Committee in 2000, he was 82 years old, an age well past the typical time of life for retirement, a course taken by many of his peers. It might have been expected that his contribution to the Committee would largely be informational, particularly in the area of forensic psychiatry (e.g., the defense of not guilty by reason of insanity, diminished responsibility, developmental deficiencies, the pharmacology of lethal injection, and such), not viewed as insignificant. As time would demonstrate, however, Arthur had other ideas as to what role he would play on the Committee. For him, medical ethics would not remain an academic exercise for colloquia and educational programs alone. Arthur had discovered what lawyers have long known, that rights without remedies were mere platitudes, the Hallmark cards of the law, so much linguistic effluvia. If medical ethics were to have potency in the real world, they would have to be implanted into the life of the nation. (Note that Arthur with his family also established two chairs of medical ethics, one at NYU and the other at his beloved alma mater, CCNY.)

The American Medical Association (AMA) 1992 Code of Medical Ethics, Article 2.06, states, “A physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution,” although an individual physician’s opinion about capital punishment remains “the personal moral decision of the individual.” It states that unacceptable participation includes prescribing or administering medications as part of the execution procedure, monitoring vital signs, rendering technical advice, selecting injection sites, starting or supervising placement of intravenous lines, or simply being present as a physician. Pronouncing death is also considered unacceptable, because the physician is not permitted to revive the prisoner if he or she is found to be alive. Only two actions were acceptable: provision at the prisoner’s request of a sedative to calm anxiety beforehand and certification of death after another person had pronounced it ….”(N Engl J Med 2006; 354:1221-1229 March 23, 2006).

When Arthur left the academy to go into the field, only 3% of American physicians were aware that is was professional misbehavior for a doctor to participate in executions (Dr. Neil Farber et al., Annals of Internal Medicine, 2000). He took it upon himself to give the rule widespread public and professional visibility. Thus, as reported in the Chicago Tribune, November 19, 2004:

“When Gov. Ernie Fletcher signed a death warrant for a convicted killer this month, he may have done more than start the clock ticking on an execution. Some say Fletcher, a doctor, may have put his medical license at risk. American Medical Association guidelines bar doctors from taking part, directly or indirectly, in executions, and Kentucky requires doctors to follow AMA ethical guidelines. “I think it’s a clear violation,” said Dr. Arthur Zitrin, a retired psychiatrist in New York and a death penalty opponent.”

The AMA rule was not destined to remain obscure for long. Arthur’s efforts unleashed a fury. A conservative website, describing Arthur as “an 86-year-old retired shrink in New York City,” wrote:

“Is anything worse than American Bar Association? (Uh, besides Association of Trial Lawyers of America.) Yes, occasionally American Medical Association is. “Bleeding-heart doctors are trying to strip Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher of his medical license because he had the guts to sign a death warrant for a creep who murdered a married couple outside their dry-cleaning business.”

In November 2004, the Associated Press wrote, “American Medical Association guidelines bar doctors from taking part, directly or indirectly, in executions. And Kentucky requires doctors to follow AMA ethical guidelines.”

On February 15, 2005, Michael Rigby reported for Prison Legal News on the activities of a Dr. Sanjeeva Rao, a prison physician in Georgia, as follows:

“Prisoners often wonder if prison medical personnel really have their best interests at heart. But in the case of Sanjeeva Rao, a Georgia prison doctor, there is no doubt. He aims to see them dead. When the state of Georgia began using lethal injections in 2000, Rao stopped promoting the health of prisoners and started assisting in their executions. Although Rao doesn’t give the injections himself, he does ensure the executions are carried out successfully. If the prisoner’s heart continues to beat after the deadly drugs are administered, for instance, Rao prescribes more. In 2001, after a nurse jabbed a needle into Jose High, a former drug addict, for 39 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to find a usable vein, Rao inserted the needle into High’s neck so that the execution could proceed.”

Rigby also reported on Arthur’s plans to file a formal complaint against Dr. Rao with the Georgia medical board and quoted Arthur’s comment that “I’m also on the trail of a doctor in Virginia, and one in Illinois.”

Arthur’s daughter, Elizabeth Zitrin, past President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, reported in an email to the writer that “In 2004, [Arthur] filed a complaint with the Georgia Composite State Board of Medical Examiners, asking them to sanction physicians who participate in executions, alleging that they were in direct violation of the AMA Code of Medical Ethics….”

While states tried to mitigate the effects of Arthur’s efforts (e.g., by judicial determinations in Georgia, and elsewhere, that complainants lacked standing successfully to prevail in the courts, by the passage of “safe harbor” laws immunizing capital punishment’s physician-participants from license revocation, by redefining medical participation as not constituting the practice of medicine, by stripping medical boards of their right to impose professional discipline, and by shielding disclosure of the names of participating doctors), such dodges failed to thwart the changes that Arthur sought to bring about. National publicity surrounding the AMA rule forbidding physician participation, and conferring pariah status upon such practitioners, became more intense, to the point that many doctors of death, like Georgia’s Dr. Rao, pulled out of the sordid business of execution entirely, making it increasingly difficult for states to find members of the profession willing to aid in state killings and greatly increasing the costs required to hire those “professionals” still willing to serve as accomplices in the death industry.

The work of our esteemed colleague, Dr. Arthur Zitrin, not only demonstrates his lifelong conviction that the penalty of death is a despicable malignancy upon the body of civil society. At the same time, it underscores that the most profound significance of medical ethics occurs when it passes beyond the lecture hall and is implanted in the lived life of the community. The death penalty abolition movement is indebted to Dr. Arthur Zitrin. No less is his beloved medical profession, for his tenacious resistance to state efforts to turn physicians into apparatchiks used to propagandize to the community that lethal injections are benign humane medical procedures. The years since Arthur took to the streets and promulgated broad public awareness of state efforts to undermine the Hippocratic Oath have witnessed the growth of that raised consciousness, as psychologists have come to question their participation in so-called enhanced interrogation methods used at Guantanamo and as pharmaceutical companies, here and in Europe, and have resisted furnishing the poisons used in lethal injections.

Accordingly, for his work as a highly successful world-class troublemaker, the Committee this year confers upon Dr. Arthur Zitrin its Norman Redlich Special Recognition Award.

William M. Erlbaum is a retired justice of the New York State Supreme Court and a longtime member of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Capital Punishment. This article is adapted from his remarks at the award ceremony. The author gratefully acknowledges the editorial assistance of Norman L. Greene, prior chair and longtime member of the Committee.



The Capital Punishment Committee presented two other awards on July 25: the 2017 Norman Redlich Capital Defense Distinguished Service Award to renowned death penalty and civil rights lawyer George Kendall, and the 2017 Norman Redlich Pro Bono Award to Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP for its work on several death penalty cases and for participating in efforts to abolish the death penalty. More information on these awards is available here.