Thursday, May 10, 2007

Florida keeps drug cocktail for executions

Wed May 9, 2007 7:03PM EDT

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida will change some execution procedures because of the slow death of a condemned killer last year but will continue to use lethal injection, the state's top prison official said on Wednesday.

Florida halted executions in December after Angel Diaz, who was sentenced to death for the 1979 murder of a Miami strip club manager, took 34 minutes to die.

Among the changes: Death chamber personnel will undergo more intensive training on how to insert needles and how to recognize when a prisoner is unconscious, said James McDonough, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections.

An investigation into Diaz's execution found that both needles used in the execution had been improperly placed or punctured veins. Instead of coursing through the circulatory system, the drugs largely ended up just beneath the skin, slowing their effect.

The Diaz case underscored a long-standing debate in the United States over how to execute criminals. Death penalty opponents have argued that lethal injection, which is used in 37 U.S. states, is cruel and unusual punishment barred by the U.S. Constitution.

Florida would not scrap lethal injection, said McDonough. "The three-drug cocktail that currently is being used here and virtually every other state, is the protocol that we are going to stick with," he said.

McDonough said his department would be ready to resume executions within 14 days of implementing changes recommended by a panel appointed to prevent a repeat of the Diaz execution. No executions are currently scheduled in Florida.

Florida executed prisoners with an electric chair for 76 years but state lawmakers approved lethal injections in January 2000 after a series of troubled executions, including one in 1997 when flames shot from the head of the condemned prisoner.

The first drug used in lethal injection, sodium pentothal, should render the inmate unconscious while the remaining injections paralyze the lungs and stop the heart.

Execution team members said Diaz suffered no pain. But witnesses said Diaz appeared to grimace, gasp for breath and contort as he lay strapped to a gurney. An execution usually takes just a few minutes.

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