Thursday, October 11, 2007

Florida should end lethal injection, or at least wait for federal court ruling

Florida should end lethal injection, or at least wait for federal court ruling

With the thoroughly botched execution of Angel Nieves Diaz last year, Florida fueled the controversy surrounding lethal injection.

Now -- with states across the nation halting executions and the U.S. Supreme Court ready to hear arguments that the procedure violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment -- Florida officials say they see no need to stall the state's death machine any longer. Thursday, they'll argue before the Florida Supreme Court that new protocols make it less likely that mistakes like the one that made Diaz's death so obviously excruciating are no longer needed.

It's not enough. Gov. Charlie Crist shouldn't wait for either court to act; he should halt executions -- or better yet, start the process of abandoning Florida's callously wasteful death penalty.

The facts surrounding Diaz's death were shocking enough to get national attention. Needles meant to inject toxic chemicals into Diaz's veins were pushed instead into the tissue of his arms. Prison officials had to stop the execution, reinsert the needles and deliver another dose of the three-drug cocktail used to kill condemned prisoners. It took nearly half an hour for him to die, and he was apparently conscious for at least part of the process, which left him with foot-long chemical burns on both arms.

Florida officials did place a brief hold on executions following that debacle, and Crist appointed a panel to make recommendations on potential improvements. But the panel's recommendations constituted mostly minimal changes. They didn't recommend changing the three drugs -- a sedative, a paralytic and a chemical to stop a prisoner's heart -- that Florida uses in lethal injections.

The panel looked past several studies, including a damning report published in the British medical journal The Lancet, which suggest that the three-drug combo (when administered correctly) causes potentially agonizing deaths. The Lancet study concluded that many executed prisoners got too little sedative, but were unable to move or indicate their agony after the paralytic did its work. And that's when executions went according to plan. Because most medical professionals are ethically prohibited from participating in executions, the chance of gruesome errors remains high.

Thursday, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments from attorneys representing child killer Mark Dean Schawb and others. Schawb is set to be executed Nov. 15.

But before those arguments, state officials could ask themselves what they really hope to gain. Other states -- including, most recently, Texas (whose Supreme Court ruled on the issue last week) -- are waiting for the federal court to make its decision. At the least, Florida should wait as well.

There's a better solution, one that recognizes the fundamental inequities, the unnecessary expense and the moral outrage of state-sanctioned killing. Commuting all death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole would send a clear message: That Florida is more interested in justice than retribution.

No comments: