Ky. officials torn over expensive surgery for death-row inmate

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A condemned killer’s fight to receive surgery for agonizing hip pain pushed Kentucky officials into an uncomfortable debate over security, politics and even the possibility of public ridicule from Fox News pundits.

Emails and memos obtained by the Associated Press show corrections officials struggling for a year to reconcile their duty to provide medical care with the political ramifications of spending tens of thousands of dollars for surgery on a man they plan to execute. A key problem turned out to be security issues that led several hospitals to balk at treating inmate Robert Foley, who still hasn’t had the surgery.

“Hip replacement for an inmate who has exhausted all appeals and will soon be executed?” Kentucky State Penitentiary Warden Phil Parker wrote in an email on Nov. 22, 2010. “I can see this making Fox News on a slow news day, maybe even on a busy news day. In fact, I bet [Fox News host Bill O’Reilly] would love to put this in his ‘Pinheads’ commentary. Just a thought to consider before it goes too much further.”

Prison officials also made contingency plans to call off the surgery if Gov. Steve Beshear set an execution date, and they considered whether to consult with the Democratic governor about the procedure.

“I think it is that important and all this may have political consequences,” Mr. Parker wrote a year before Mr. Beshear’s re-election. Ultimately, Mr. Beshear’s spokeswoman said he wasn’t contacted about it.

Foley, 55, was convicted of killing six people in eastern Kentucky in 1989 and 1991, making him the most infamous killer on the state’s death row. His status as an extremely dangerous prisoner was a key factor in the state’s difficulty finding a surgeon and hospital, according to the documents obtained through a public records request and a lawsuit filed by Foley.

Foley still hasn’t had the surgery, with Mr. Parker lamenting in an email they had no options after an exhaustive search.

State officials deny that politics played a role, and there’s no evidence in the documents that political considerations prevented the surgery.

A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Justice Cabinet which oversees corrections and law enforcement declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit.

Foley’s attorney, Jamesa Drake, said the state needs a way to care for condemned inmates, even those with complex needs. Foley, who has been on death row since 1993, is unable to get around without help because he’s at risk of a dangerous fall.

“If you’re on death row, it’s just like anybody else,” the attorney said. “If you need a new hip, you need a new hip. It hurts.”

It’s not unusual for inmates to receive treatment outside of prison, and Foley has twice left death row for other surgical procedures.

Foley first complained to prison officials about the persistent pain in his right hip in September 2010, saying his leg sometimes “gives out on him,” according to the lawsuit.

Foley initially didn’t want the surgery and tried to fashion his own hip brace out of “flip flops and other everyday items.” Foley said the brace helped with the pain in an affidavit signed in February, but prison officials confiscated it.

After Foley agreed to the surgery, officials searched for a doctor to perform the $56,000 operation. At the time, Foley was under a death warrant signed by Mr. Beshear.

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