Friday, July 29, 2011

Lethal injection drug hearing to continue next week


Lethal injection drug hearing to continue next week


A Miami judge began hearing testimony on the safety of pentobarbital, an anesthetic intended to be used in the scheduled execution of man who shot and killed a Coral Gables cop in 1978.

A hearing that began Thursday morning on the new use of an anesthetic drug in Florida’s legal injections will continue next week, after a Miami judge decided that scientists for both sides should testify in person and via video conference on Tuesday.
The hearing stems from the case of Manuel Valle, sentenced to death for shooting and killing Coral Gables Police Officer Louis Pena in 1978. Valle’s execution, initially set for Aug. 2, was temporarily stayed by the Florida Supreme Court on Monday until Sept. 1, pending a hearing on the safety and efficacy of the drug in question, pentobarbital.
The defense’s expert witness on the drug was unable to be in Miami before Tuesday, when the judge was scheduled to be on vacation. The prosecution’s expert could have testified by phone Thursday, but Circuit Court Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola — apparently postponing her vacation — said she would be more comfortable seeing the witness’s face by video to establish his credibility. That expert will testify Tuesday, too.
A quiet but alert Valle, 61, appeared in court Thursday, handcuffed, carrying a bulky file and wearing orange-and-blue prison garb and thick glasses that slid down his nose.
He turned occasionally to look at family members seated in the courtroom and spoke only halfway through the proceedings, when his lawyer told the judge Valle preferred to go back to Florida State Prison in Starke than to sit through the remainder of the hearing through Tuesday.
Do you want to go now, or wait until the end of the day?, the judge asked him.
“It doesn’t matter,” Valle said, turning to the gaggle of corrections officers sitting behind him. “If you guys want to go…”
That prompted laughter from the judge, lawyers and observers in the courtroom, and a smile from Valle, who was allowed to go.
“Thank you, your honor,” he said.
His family and the victim’s family, many of whom had driven over from Fort Myers Thursday morning, remained. A contingent of Coral Gables police officers left.
The judge listened to testimony — by phone and in person — from people who have witnessed lethal-injection executions using pentobarbital in other states.
Valle would be the first Florida inmate to be executed with the drug. His defense has raised questions as to whether the drug in the amount prescribed by the state could cause him pain and constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Testifying for the defense, a federal public defender, described the June 16 execution in Alabama of Eddie Duval Powell. The witness, Matt Schulz, said by phone that Powell jerked up, clenched his jaw and looked confused for about a minute before passing out and later dying.
On the other side, John Harper, an employee of the Georgia Department of Corrections, described the June 23 execution in that state of Roy Blankenship — expected to come up when the defense’s expert takes the stand next week — as relatively non-eventful.
The Florida Department of Corrections signed off last month on using pentobarbital, a barbiturate, to sedate inmates before a second drug paralyzes them and a third stops their heart.
The state had to switch sedatives after the Illinois pharmaceutical company that sold it the previous drug, sodium thiopental, discontinued the production of it because it did not want the drug used in executions.
The defense on Thursday admitted into evidence four letters sent to the state by Lundbeck, the Danish company that manufactures the pentobarbital, urging Florida not to use the drug for capital punishment.
“The use of pentobarbital outside the approved labeling has not been established,” Staffan Schüberg, Lundbeck’s president, wrote Gov. Rick Scott. “As such, Lundbeck cannot assure the associated safety and efficacy profiles in such instances. For this reason, we are concerned about its use in prison executions.”
Herald/Times staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.

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