Saturday, April 26, 2008

Florida still risks botched executions

Florida is about to rev up its death chamber again. The U.S. Supreme Court has given the go-ahead to states like Florida to continue using a three-drug cocktail for lethal injections, and the state's attorney general and governor have wasted no time in calling for the resumption of executions. But just because Florida's procedure has been deemed constitutional doesn't mean it is sufficiently humane. The potential for error and an excruciating death remains.

Florida's executions have been on hold while the Supreme Court decided a Kentucky case challenging the use of a three-drug lethal cocktail used by at least 30 death penalty states. The danger of these drugs became clear after Florida's execution of Angel Diaz in December 2006. Due to mishandled injections, Diaz had chemicals injected into his soft tissue rather than into his veins. His execution took 34 minutes, twice as long as usual, and it is quite possible that he suffered severely.

Florida uses a lethal injection protocol that state veterinarians have rejected for euthanizing pets, since the risk of severe pain is considered too high. In the protocol, a strong barbiturate sedative, sodium pentathol, is administered first to render the inmate unconscious and pain-free. The second and third drugs then cause paralysis and cardiac arrest. If the sedation drug is not administered properly, these latter drugs can manifest serious levels of pain on the order of feeling that one's flesh is on fire and slow asphyxiation. But the inmate will be unable to communicate his suffering due to the paralytic effects of the pancuronium bromide, the second drug.

It is possible to induce death without the pancuronium bromide, but the Department of Corrections has stubbornly stuck with its old drug protocols. The department has refused to budge even after being urged by a study commission appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to consider other "more recently developed" chemicals for use in executions and to reconsider the use of any paralytic drug in order to make executions "less problematic."

A botched execution might be too remote to rise to the level of a constitutional concern for our current Supreme Court, but it happened here and could happen again.

Since the Diaz execution, the Department of Corrections has largely implemented the suggestions of the governor's commission and revamped its execution protocols to build in more safeguards. The execution team warden, for example, must determine that the inmate is fully unconscious before the pain-causing drugs are administered. And more training and experience is required of those carrying out the execution, although a medical doctor's direct participation is still not required.

Even so, the continued use of the paralyzing agent means that the state is not doing everything it can to ensure that the death penalty is carried out as humanely as possible. It wouldn't take much to eliminate this drug from the mix, and it remains puzzling why the state refuses to take this modest step.

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