Saturday, June 23, 2007

Florida plans to resume executions despite criticism of changes

June 23, 2007

Associated Press Writer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Strapped to a gurney in the lethal injection chamber at Florida State Prison, Angel Diaz felt the poison flowing into his arms and awaited his death. But it didn't come quickly.

"What's happening?" the convicted murderer twice asked as his Dec. 13 execution dragged on. Witnesses had the same question and some thought he was in pain. Diaz appeared to grimace and he turned his head to the side, mouthing words, his chest rising and falling.

Something was wrong - the IV needles had been pushed completely through his veins and the poison that was supposed to kill him quickly was collecting in the muscles of his arms. It took 34 minutes for Diaz to die, about twice as long as normal.

The botched death caused then-Gov. Jeb Bush to halt executions and ask a commission to suggest improvements to the procedure. New Gov. Charlie Crist said last month he will sign death warrants again after the state followed 37 recommendations from the panel, including additional training for execution teams and installing video cameras, a communications system and better lighting in the death chamber.

It's unclear when Crist will act, and death penalty opponents and attorneys for Florida's 376 condemned men continue to challenge lethal injections in court because they say the changes are not enough. They claim too much of the process remains shrouded in secrecy and the execution teams still lack proper medical training.

They also cite medical studies that the three chemicals used can cause excruciating pain that probably violates constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment.

Florida is not alone with death row problems: lethal injections are on hold in seven other states and most challenges deal with the chemical cocktail used in executions.

But Florida prison officials say lethal injections give inmates a "humane and dignified death." Corrections Secretary James McDonough said his department determined the chemical cocktail "was working well" after reviewing the procedures of 37 other states, the federal government and Florida's 20 lethal injections.

In future executions, he said, officials will closely monitor the IV tubes and look for signs of red streaks on inmates' arms. In addition, gurneys holding inmates will not be moved after the IV tubes are inserted. McDonough believes gurney movement caused the needles to come out of Diaz' veins.

He said he couldn't guarantee that executions would be free of human error, but the extra training will make problems less likely. The state has not released specifics of the additional education. Costs for the training and chamber renovations are $44,000, Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said.

McDonough said those involved in inserting the needles "are medically qualified people. The person that did the Diaz execution is highly experienced in the insertion of needles on a daily basis." Medical ethics bar doctors and other health professionals from taking part in executions.

A death penalty opponent, Dr. Jonathan I. Groner, clinical professor of surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, said Florida is again inviting more problems.

"Florida's lethal injection procedure remains fundamentally flawed. The new protocol does nothing more than create the illusion that the procedure has improved," Groner said.

The state commission also suggested, but did not require, "exploring other more recently developed chemicals for use in a lethal injection." Corrections officials will continue to use the same ones: sodium pentothal, which is an anesthetic; pancuronium bromide, a nerve blocker and muscle paralyze; and potassium chloride, a drug to stop the heart.

Each is supposed to be capable of killing by itself, but if not, the anesthetic is supposed to make the inmate unconscious while the other drugs do the job.

Recently published research from the University of Miami School of Medicine suggests that inmates "may have been inadequately anesthetized during injection and may die of pancuronium-induced asphyxiation," Groner said.

Defense attorneys representing death row inmates remain skeptical of the new procedures and are waiting to see who Crist will choose as the next inmate to die.

"I think there are so many things that weren't dealt with," said D. Todd Doss, an attorney who represents several death row inmates.

Martin McClain, another defense attorney, said he is worried about part of the new procedure that lets the warden determine if the inmate is unconscious after the first drug is injected. "That's my concern - to guarantee that a person is unconscious," McClain said. "I don't know if they have solved that problem or not."

Lethal injection has been adopted by 37 states as a cheaper and more humane alternative to the electric chair, gas chambers and other execution methods.

Seven states - Arkansas, California, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and South Dakota - have placed executions on hold because of issues dealing with the constitutionality of lethal injection, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Similar challenges about seven years ago to Florida's "Old Sparky" electric chair led the state to switch to lethal injection.

"There is no doubt that the crimes that some of these people committed are heinous, but is seems that our government could better spend its time and the taxpayer's money finding out ways to punish criminals and protect the public - not endorsing a flawed state-sponsored execution system," said Brandon Hensler, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida.

State Sen. Victor Crist, chairman of the criminal and civil justice appropriations committee, said most voters want capital punishment and lethal injection is the most humane method. He said he doubted courts would find lethal injection unconstitutional.

"No matter what method we use, those who oppose the death penalty, the abolitionists, will find a reason to try to find it cruel and unusual and shut the process down," said the Tampa Republican, who is not related to the governor.

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