Governor receives execution proposals


Published: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 10:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Sun staff writer

Facts

Panel's proposalsThe 11-member lethal injection commission made more than two dozen recommendations on improving the execution procedure in Florida, including:

  • Delay the execution after a sedative is administered, making sure the inmate is unconscious before proceeding with the final two drugs in the process.
  • Don't move the inmate after IV access is achieved and take other steps to make sure IV access is maintained throughout the entire execution.
  • Establish closed-circuit monitoring for execution team members to be able to see the inmate's face and IV access points.
  • Improve training, including holding periodic training exercises for all execution team members in which they practice possible contingencies.
  • Clearly establish the Florida State Prison warden as the ultimate decision-maker in executions and make sure the warden can communicate with execution team members.

As the governor reviews proposed changes to lethal injection, a relative of the inmate whose execution was botched said the recommendations don't go far enough.

"They're still taking a chance," said Sol Otero of Orlando, who considers Angel Diaz her uncle but is actually his second cousin.

Diaz's Dec. 13 execution was prolonged due to dislodged IVs that caused lethal drugs to be distributed outside his veins. The problem prompted then-Gov. Jeb Bush to halt all executions and create the commission to investigate.

The commission issued a report Thursday to Gov. Charlie Crist with recommendations on improving the procedure. They include taking steps to make sure the inmate is unconscious, providing closer monitoring of IV lines and conducting better training of the execution team.

Crist said he had not had a chance to review the panel's report as of early Thursday afternoon and declined to speculate on any changes he may recommend. He reiterated his support for the death penalty and said its resumption would be based on the report.

"I think that within a responsible period of time after having a chance to move forward ... that we can move forward," he said.

The governor can ask the Florida Department of Corrections to make changes to lethal injection without needing legislative action. But if the governor doesn't act on his own, a state senator who was part of the commission said he'll draft a bill to force the changes.

"These things have to be done," said Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who isn't related to the governor. "Whether the governor acts or not, it has to be done."

Sen. Crist helped write the 2000 law implementing lethal injection in Florida. He said he believes the commission's proposals will minimize the chance for an inmate to be awake and feeling pain during the procedure.

"You've done everything that is reasonable, prudent and humanly possible to ensure safeguards," he said.

But Otero, who attended some of the commission meetings in Tampa over the past month, isn't so sure. Otero said testimony showed a person could be awake during an execution, but prevented from speaking by a paralytic drug used in the state's three-drug cocktail.

"That can still happen," she said.

Florida's execution procedure is similar to the method used in the 36 other states with lethal injection. Inmates are first injected with sodium pentothal to render them unconscious, followed by pancuronium bromide to paralyze the muscles. Potassium chloride is then injected to stop the heart.

Commission member Stan Morris, a Gainesville circuit court judge, had questioned whether the paralytic should continue to be used. Because the drug can mask unconsciousness, the American Veterinary Medical Association bans the use of the drug in euthanizing animals.

According to commission testimony, the drug is used mainly for aesthetic purposes to prevent involuntary motions that might be misconstrued as convulsions.

The commission decided to recommend Crist review all the chemicals, letting him make his own decision on whether the second drug should still be used.

Members declined to recommend some changes, including drawing blood from inmates immediately after executions. University of Florida toxicologist Dr. Bruce Goldberger had suggested the change to better determine the level of drugs in the inmate's bloodstream.

Goldberger said an immediate blood draw would give an indication if the inmate was conscious during the procedure. In the Diaz execution, blood samples were taken the next day and provided no indication of his level of consciousness.

The commission proposed other steps to document problems in executions. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent would document what happens in the room where the lethal drugs are administered, while a second agent would document the inmate's actions from the witness room.

Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the changes could still leave the public in the dark about problems in executions. He said news media witnesses were the only reason problems in the Diaz execution were publicly known. He supports allowing witnesses to view all aspects of the procedure and have an open microphone to the execution room.

"The witnesses need to be actual witnesses and not just viewing a peep show of only what the state wants them to see," he said.

Tallahassee bureau reporter Joe Follick contributed to this report. Nathan Crabbe can be reached at (352) 338-3176 or crabben@gvillesun.com.

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