Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Florida execution success portends more deaths

Associated Press Writer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. --Eighteen months after Florida botched its last execution, its new lethal injection procedures resulted in what appeared to be a smooth and peaceful death for child killer Mark Dean Schwab.

Although the new procedures may allow Florida's executions to begin ramping up, the lessons won't necessarily apply to other states - like Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee - that still face various legal challenges to their lethal injection methods.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has already indicated he plans to resume signing death warrants.

"I think we have 387, the last count that I saw, that remain on death row. A lot of people are waiting for justice to be done," Crist said Wednesday.

Peter Cannon, the state-paid attorney who represented Schwab, also predicted an increase.

"As for the future in Florida, yesterday's execution will undoubtedly lead to the signing of more death warrants. With 18 months' delay, many cases have worked their way through the system, resulting in many inmates becoming warrant-eligible," he said.

After the botched execution of Angel Diaz in December 2006, then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed a commission to investigate. As a result, Florida corrections officials changed the state's death chamber protocols.

In a newly remodeled death chamber at Florida State Prison, the executioner was able to watch Schwab's face and his two arms on television cameras. A warden checked to ensure that Schwab was unconscious after the first chemical, sodium pentothal was injected. It took 12 minutes for Schwab to die, compared with 34 for Diaz. In the Diaz execution, the medical examiner determined that needles had punctured his veins, causing the deadly chemicals to push into his muscles, prolonging his life and causing severe chemical burns.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said other states each have different issues that have prevented them from resuming executions. Although all states that use lethal injection use the same three drugs, it is unlikely they will have picked up any information from Florida's procedure changes.

"Each state has factual differences," he said.

The situation in Ohio is the result of a judge who wants to see the state change to a single drug, Dieter said. Most states use the same three chemicals.

Ohio has had two problematic executions, in May 2006 and May 2007, both dealing with problems finding suitable veins in the condemned inmates.

In Tennessee, the state put a moratorium on executions in 2007 after it was sued over its lethal injection procedures.

One inmate was executed in 2007 before a federal judge ruled against the new procedures on the grounds that they pose "substantial risk of unnecessary pain" to the inmate. The judge barred the state from using its lethal injection procedures until it addresses problems with training and medical expertise.

The judge's order has been appealed but remains in effect despite the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld lethal injection.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on June 24 to hear two death penalty cases, both from Tennessee, which could influence that state's future executions.

In Alabama, the state adjusted its protocol last year to make sure the inmate was unconscious when the lethal drugs are administered, similar to the process used in Florida.

An execution is scheduled July 31 in Alabama.

Dieter expects an uptick in the number of executions, partially to clear the seven-month backlog caused by the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to allow states to proceed while it considered two cases from Kentucky.

"The pace is clearly quickening," Dieter said.

Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of Clinical Surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, who has written extensively about the role of medical professionals in capital punishment, believes other states will take a cue from Florida.

"It will embolden other states to move forward. There will be more executions until there is another horrible botch," Groner said. "A Diaz-like failure is still possible."

Cannon agreed.

"I can only guess what will happen based on data which shows a substantial probability that future executions will be problematic," he said. "Human experience teaches us that we are not perfect. We encounter problems when we fail or refuse to acknowledge the fact."

Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, Teresa Wasson in Nashville, Tenn., and Kendal Weaver in Montgomery, Ala., contributed to this report.

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