Thursday, July 19, 2007

Governor Signs His First Death Warrant

The Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist ended a seven-month moratorium on executions in Florida after a botched lethal injection by signing his first death warrant Wednesday.

Mark Dean Schwab, 38, is scheduled to be executed Nov. 15, Crist said. Schwab was sentenced to death in 1992 for the kidnapping, rape and murder of 11-year-old Junny Rios-Martinez of Cocoa. He targeted the boy after seeing his picture in a newspaper. The victim was strangled or suffocated.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush suspended executions when it took 34 minutes - twice as long as normal - for convicted killer Angel Diaz, 55, to die Dec. 13 after he received a rare second dose of three lethal chemicals.

An autopsy showed needles had been pushed through his veins into the flesh of his arms, reducing the effectiveness of the drugs. Witnesses said it appeared Diaz grimaced in pain and he twice asked "What's happening?"

Since then, the state has adopted recommendations from a commission appointed by Bush to improve the lethal injection procedure. In signing the warrant, Crist said he is confident executions can continue in line with constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment.

The warrant was a surprise to lawyers who represent death row inmates because a lethal injection challenge based on the Diaz case has yet to be decided. The Florida Supreme Court had put that case, filed on behalf of convicted killer Ian Deco Lightbourne, on a fast track just hours before Crist signed Schwab's warrant.

"The speculation among us was that the warrants would not be signed until after the resolution of the Lightbourne case," said Mark Gruber, one of Schwab's lawyers.

Gruber, an assistant capital collateral regional counsel, said Schwab also would challenge the lethal injection process in a post-conviction appeal.

The governor, though, did show respect for the courts by scheduling Schwab's execution about a month after the justices are to hear oral argument in the Lightbourne case, Gruber said.

It still is pending in trial court, but the justices Wednesday set their argument for Oct. 11 after Circuit Judge Carven D. Angel of Ocala notified them he would make his decision by Sept. 10.

A lawyer for Lightbourne filed the challenge with the Supreme Court a day after Diaz was executed, but the justices referred it to Angel for an initial ruling.

The Department of Corrections, meanwhile, made some changes in its execution procedure, including more training, in response to recommendations from the Commission on Administration of Lethal Injection.

The panel also suggested the department explore newer drugs or the elimination of one that causes paralysis, but Corrections Secretary James McDonough decided to stick with the same three-chemical mix.

The Diaz case shows that is a flawed procedure, Assistant Capital Collateral Regional Counsel Suzanne Myers Keffer has argued on Lightbourne's behalf.

Sodium pentothal is used to render an inmate unconscious before the administration of pancuronium bromide, a paralyzing agent, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

If the sodium pentothal wears off or is improperly administered, there's "a risk that the inmate will experience excruciating pain," Keffer wrote in papers filed with the Supreme Court.

The death warrant was a disappointment to capital punishment opponents.

"There have been many questions regarding whether the drugs are administered out of sequence or inappropriately that actually the prisoner could die by suffocation and could not signal or actually indicate he was experiencing pain," said Florida Catholic Conference spokeswoman Sheila Hopkins.

That's because of the paralyzing effect of pancuronium bromide.

Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the death warrant is premature because the Lightbourne case is bringing out "much more damning evidence" than heard by the state commission.

Angel is holding hearings this week, and they are expected to continue into next week, said Elliott, who has been in attendance.

Another of Schwab's lawyers, Kenneth Studstill, recently argued in a clemency petition that his client's life should be spared so psychologists can study him to better understand pedophiles and prevent them from raping and killing children.

Crist, with the agreement of two of the state's three Cabinet members, can commute sentences through his executive clemency authority. Studstill said the death warrant in effect denied the clemency petition.

Schwab saw the boy's picture in a newspaper after being released from prison in March 1991 after serving three years for sexual assault against another child. Schwab called the family on the phone, claiming he was writing an article on the boy.

He became friendly with the family, even promising to help the boy get a contract to represent a surfing company. The boy's body was found three days after the murder.

Schwab claimed a man he knew only as Donald forced him to kidnap and rape the boy but that Donald killed him. Schwab was convicted of first-degree murder, sexual battery upon a child and kidnapping of a child younger than 13.

The telephone at the home of the boy's family went unanswered Wednesday.

Lightbourne, 47, was convicted of murdering Nancy O'Farrell in 1981 after breaking into her Marion County home and stealing some of her belongings.

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