Sunday, May 13, 2007

Official: Trained teams to perform lethal injection

Article published May 10, 2007
Official: Trained teams to perform lethal injection

By Bill Cotterell

Executions will be carried out by expanded, specially trained teams but the lethal three-drug mix will not be changed, the head of Florida's prison system said Wednesday.

''The principles that were laid out were, first of all, a humane and dignified death,'' Department of Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough said, presenting his response to findings of a special task force on the death penalty. The department concurred with all 37 recommendations by the commission, with a few modifications.

''We determined that the three-drug cocktail that currently is being used here, and I believe in virtually every other state, was in fact the protocol we're going to stick with,'' said McDonough.

Gov. Charlie Crist's communications director, Vivian Myrtetus, said the governor will be briefed next week and a decision on lifting a moratorium on executions will be made later. The DOC said are 376 inmates currently under death sentence in Florida.

Death-penalty opponents said the new methods will not make capital punishment humane.

''This is not a fundamental change from procedures previously used, just window dressing,'' said Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. ''You can put a dress on a pig but it's still a pig. We don't believe there's ever a right way to do the wrong thing.''

Ex-Gov. Jeb Bush created the special task force after the Dec. 13 execution of Angel Diaz, who took about 34 minutes to die. An autopsy determined needles missed Diaz' veins and the deadly chemicals instead went into tissue, causing a more prolonged death.

The state's lethal-injection methods were unsuccessfully challenged in court by the three condemned prisoners executed by Florida in 2006 and by others previously, each saying Florida's protocol is unconstitutional as cruel.

DOC Deputy Secretary for Institutions George Sapp said changes announced Wednesday include doubling the size of the death chamber, giving teams more room to work. A warden will have total authority during executions and teams of about a dozen officers will be trained to recognize signs of pain or equipment malfunction.

Two Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents, one in the execution chamber and the other in the chemical room, will document every step with log entries every two minutes, under the DOC recommendations.

Prisoners will be examined to make sure their veins are not obstructed and that they don't have other conditions that could cause a procedure to go wrong. In an ''extraordinary event,'' an execution could be halted, curtains at the witness chamber would be drawn and a needle could be moved to a leg or other location so the execution could resume.

''While the entire process of execution should be transparent, we also set as a principle the concerns and emotions of all those involved,'' said McDonough. '' 'All those involved' meant the victims' families and friends, it meant the family of the condemned and it also meant the general public.''

He said the three chemicals used in the Diaz execution and others - sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride - will not be changed. The drugs are designed to anesthetize, halt respiration and then stop the heart of condemned prisoners.

Brandon Hensler, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said his organization will oppose the procedures.

''There is no humane way for the state to kill someone, period,'' he said. ''We believe the state will still be unconstitutionally inflicting pain.''

Lethal injection has been Florida's primary method for administering the death penalty since 2000, after several executions by electrocution went awry, including one inmate who caught on fire.

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