Friday, July 29, 2011

Paul Flemming: Drug debate puts execution on hold

Paul Flemming
Paul Flemming
Harvard medical school professors, Danish pharmaceutical companies, four members of the Florida Supreme Court and attorneys for condemned cop killer Manuel Valle are poking their collective noses into the state of Florida's business, namely its — and our — business of death.
As a result, Valle won't be executed Tuesday as scheduled by the death warrant Gov. Rick Scott signed in June.
The Florida Supreme Court on Monday stayed Valle's death sentence and ordered an evidentiary hearing about the efficacy of pentobarbital to knock him unconscious so he doesn't feel the effects of the next two drugs his executioners would administer to paralyze him and stop his heart.
Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince, Jorge Labarga and James Perry voted to stay Valle's execution, writing that a report from Dr. David Waisel, a pediatric anesthesiologist and associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School included in Valle's lawyer's arguments, merited a further look at pentobarbital, a new drug in Florida's execution process.
Dissenting were Chief Justice Charles Canady and Justices Fred Lewis and Ricky Polston. "Based on speculation and conjecture, Valle claims the right to judicial micromanagement of the execution process," Canady wrote in the dissenting opinion.
An evidentiary hearing began in Miami on Thursday. The question will end up back before the state's high court.
Florida's use of pentobarbital is new. Previously, Florida used sodium thiopental as the first drug. But the maker of sodium thiopental stopped doing so. Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss approved new protocols for lethal injection, including pentobarbital, on June 8.
Staffan Schüberg, president of Lundbeck Inc., the manufacturer of pentobarbital with the brand name Nembutal, wrote to Scott on May 16 and June 8 and also sent a June 8 letter to Buss.
"We are adamantly opposed to the use of Nembutal to execute prisoners because it contradicts everything we are in business to do — provide therapies that improve people's lives," Schuberg wrote in his May 16 letter to Scott.
Schüberg admits there's nothing he can do to stop the state of Florida.
Of the 30 states that use lethal injection for executions, a number have already switched to pentobarbital after supplies of sodium thiopental went away. Oklahoma, Texas and Georgia have executed prisoners this year using pentobarbital as part of lethal injections.
The three drugs — to anesthetize, paralyze and kill — have been sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court as constitutional. The combination is used by so many states because to vary the procedure would invite further court review. The magical mix was developed essentially by chance in 1977 by Oklahoma's chief medical examiner, Jay Chapman, according to years of litigation about the procedures.
The states, including Florida, argue the procedure is designed to provide a humane and pain-free death for the condemned. Death sentences are carried out with the antiseptic regimentation of a government bureaucracy that also make for a less messy and disturbing experience for executioners and witnesses.
Lethal injection became the first option for Florida executions in 2000, following a series of grisly fires and unseemly writhing by the condemned who died in the still-optional electric chair.
State-sponsored executions are going away. This is not a subjective hope, it is an objective fact, as fewer and fewer death sentences are carried out in the United States, itself an outlier in the community of nations. Not this year, not this decade even, probably, but it's slipping toward its inevitable end. The more we take ourselves away from the reality of state-sponsored death with debates about the efficacy of anesthesia, the more self-evidently ludicrous the arguments become and unsupportable its practice.
This societal evolution is evident.
Did the power company ever object to the state's using its electricity for unintended purposes?
— Paul Flemming is the state editor for the Tallahassee Democrat and Contact him at or 850-671-6550.

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