Thursday, April 26, 2007

Death penalty sometimes goes dead wrong


Mike Thomas

April 26, 2007

It feels good to kill some people.

It felt good to kill Ted Bundy. It will feel good to kill John Couey for what he did to Jessica Lunsford.

But since we are a civilized people, we must follow rules in this tricky business of executions.

And so we have gone from lynch mobs to prosecutors, public defenders, juries, judges, appellate courts and so on.

We also must be humane.

That is why Florida switched from hanging to Old Sparky in 1924, figuring a massive jolt of juice was quicker than dangling and gagging when the noose did not snap the neck.

But then Old Sparky began acting up in the 1990s. Flames erupted around the heads of two prisoners. Blood poured from the nose of a third.

In a 1999 Florida Supreme Court ruling, Chief Justice Major Harding suggested lethal injection, noting that "each time an execution is carried out, the courts wait in dread anticipation of some 'unforeseeable accident' that will set in motion a frenzy of inmate petitions and other filings."

Lawmakers quickly turned to lethal injection lest Old Sparky ever be deemed cruel and unusual.

That settled the matter until last December. While sprawled on a gurney, inmate Angel Nieves Diaz did not close his eyes and die on cue. He stubbornly clung to life. He grimaced. He gasped "like a fish out of water," said one witness. It took another round of chemicals and 34 minutes before he was pronounced dead.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said she thought he felt no pain.

In fact, the needles were shoved through Diaz's veins and the drugs were forced into the arm tissue, causing extensive chemical burns. It's also quite possible he was paralyzed and conscious as his lungs slowly lost the ability to breathe.

Jeb Bush halted executions and formed a panel to check into it. The panel recently recommended new protocols and better training. It also mentioned that someone might want to check into using better chemicals.

Yes, the chemicals are a problem. A group of medical experts, many from the University of Miami, reported this week that Diaz might not be an isolated case. The drug meant to put people under before the other drugs do their damage might not keep them under. But since one of the drugs is a paralyzing agent, that disturbing possibility may be masked.The Florida Supreme Court must be waiting "in dread anticipation" for that frenzy of death-row appeals that will result from this.

We also have another glitch in the system. The Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that tracks capital cases, lists 123 death-row inmates who were pardoned, had their conviction overturned, were acquitted at retrial or had all charges dropped, dating back to 1973. Twenty-two were from Florida.

It raises the question of how many innocent people have been executed. Given Southern justice and defendants of color, rest assured the answer is more than none.

The Chicago Tribune reported on one probable mistake in Texas. It appears likely that Carlos DeLuna was executed in 1989 for the crime of looking like another Hispanic man who really committed the murder.

The main witness told the Tribune, "I wasn't all that sure, but him being Hispanic and all . . . I said, 'Yeah, I think it is him.'

"It feels so good to kill a John Couey or Ted Bundy that we accept the probability of repeating what happened to Carlos DeLuna and Angel Nieves Diaz.

Given that Florida has executed 64 inmates since 1979, I don't anticipate the state will second-guess that tradeoff anytime soon.

Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or

His blog is

No comments: