Thursday, July 19, 2007

Governor returns to death penalty

Gov. Crist signs his first death warrant, ending a moratorium.
Published July 19, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Breaking a seven-month moratorium on Florida's death penalty, Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday ordered the execution of a child murderer.

The death warrant for Mark Dean Schwab, who kidnapped, raped and killed an 11-year-old Cocoa boy in 1991, is Crist's first since taking office in January.

It also marks the first death warrant since executions in Florida were halted after it took twice as long as normal to kill Angel Diaz. Death penalty advocates hope Crist's move may help break moratoriums in other states.

But Crist delayed the execution until November because another death row inmate is challenging the state's lethal injection procedure as inhumane. There are 381 people currently on Florida's death row.

"Gov. Crist is smart to pick that as the first warrant he signed," said Bobbi Flowers, a Stetson University College of Law professor. "This is a case few people are going to argue against."

December's botched execution became national news and led to a study of Florida's lethal injection procedures. A panel appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush made numerous recommendations, which were adopted by the Department of Corrections.

Crist, a Republican who has long supported the death penalty, signaled in May that he was ready to begin signing death warrants again. In following through Wednesday, he said he was "confident the training, organization and communication processes ... are consistent with the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution" barring cruel and unusual punishment.

Several groups opposed to the death penalty said Crist's actions were at best premature as the debate over lethal injection is not resolved.

"The public still does not know what happened in the execution chamber on Dec. 13," said Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "The mistakes that were made in the Diaz case are still being revealed."

Injection fight goes on

Elliott spoke from Ocala, where he was attending a court hearing of a death row inmate's challenge to Florida's lethal injection procedure.

Lawyers for Ian Deco Lightbourne are using the Diaz problems as the foundation for their case. Lightbourne, 47, was convicted of a 1981 murder in Marion County. Department of Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough is expected to testify today.

The Diaz execution on Dec. 13 took 34 minutes, twice as long as normal, because the lethal drug cocktail went into his flesh, not his bloodstream. Some witnesses said Diaz, condemned for the 1979 murder of a topless club manager in Miami, grimaced and clenched his jaw during the procedure.

A team studied what went wrong. As a result, the death chamber was doubled in size to give the execution team more room to work, videocameras were installed and a team of nearly 20 went through extensive training. The bed for the inmate will also be locked in place to minimize movement during the injection. But the state did not require a medical expert to be in charge (finding a doctor to participate in an execution is difficult) and there was no change to the chemical mix for the execution.

Crist is satisfied with the changes. "I need to carry out my duty as governor," he said in May.

Schwab, now 38, was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to death row. His court-appointed attorney, Kenneth Studstill, recently asked the Office of Executive Clemency to spare his life so that he can be studied to prevent other pedophiles from raping and killing. Studstill reiterated that Wednesday but added, "There isn't anything else I can do at this point."

Moratorium elsewhere

The Diaz execution came amid growing national scrutiny of lethal injection. Eleven of the 37 states that used lethal injection put it on hold.

Florida is the largest of those states to restart the death penalty, said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in California, where the practice is still suspended. The organization supports the death penalty.

"It may have a symbolic effect," Scheidegger said of Crist's action.

"It's consistent with what's happening across the country. The controversy over lethal injection was a speed bump in the road of justice. It really comes down to making sure the drugs actually do get into the vein."

Times staff writer Chris Tisch contributed to this report.

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