Monday, July 2, 2007

Lethal questions

State's death-penalty rules still flawed

Gov. Charlie Crist says he's ready to crank up executions again in Florida after the state adopted 37 recommended changes in procedure that supposedly make lethal injection less brutal and less prone to gruesome accidents.

We'd urge Crist to reconsider. Much as the governor backed away from his old persona as "Chain Gang Charlie," the state should back away from its bloodthirsty reputation and move toward a system that emphasizes justice over vengeance.

The problems with the death penalty aren't going away. Even if Florida found a painless and foolproof execution method (the current system is likely to be neither, even after the changes) fundamental injustices remain. The death penalty is still applied so randomly that it's comparable to lightning striking. Racial and socioeconomic inequities still riddle the system. And the question of innocence still throbs as the sorest point of all.

The man whose execution prompted a review of lethal-injection procedures went to his death proclaiming his innocence. There were no eyewitnesses to the killing of a Miami strip-club manager for which Angel Nieves Diaz was convicted, and a jailhouse "snitch" later testified that he lied when he said Diaz confessed to the crime.

But it was the manner in which Diaz died that raised so many questions. Florida's lethal-injection procedure was adopted because it was advertised as being sterile and quick, with no unsightly twitching or flames. But Diaz's execution took more than 30 minutes. Needles meant to inject a triple cocktail of lethal chemicals into his bloodstream were inserted through, not into, his veins, leaving the caustic fluid to pool in the muscles of each arm.

Witnesses said they saw Diaz moving his head, grimacing and mouthing words as the execution dragged on. But state officials say Diaz felt no pain. That claim is barely credible.

The changes in execution procedure since adopted by the state don't offer much comfort. Among other things, prison officials will take care not to move the gurney onto which a prisoner is strapped during an execution, and watch the inmate's arms for signs that a needle has been misinserted. But the state won't change the chemicals used in exections, despite medical testimony that the three-drug combination -- an anesthetic, a paralytic, and a drug that stops the heart -- could be excruciatingly painful.

Florida leaders shouldn't focus on making executions less dramatic. They should be asking whether all the controversy and debate is worth it, whether the effort is justified to preserve a system that any rational evaluation shows to be unjust. The answer, clearly, is no.

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