Executions in several US states have been put on hold because of a botched killing. But it is the entire system that is inherently unsafe
December 19, 2006 07:00 PM
His killers plotted how they would do it - injecting him with massive doses of poisonous chemicals that flowed not into his veins, but through his tissue, causing searing burns.
He remained conscious for at least 24 minutes, and each moment must have seemed an age.
There were eyewitnesses to the offence, and they told how Diaz's eyes were open, how he grimaced, shuddered, gasped for air and tried to speak.
No one came to his aid. It was a torturous death.
Usually, if such a terrible killing were committed in Florida, the perpetrators would be facing the death penalty.
But Diaz was himself on death row, sentenced to die for a 1979 murder that he maintained to the end he did not commit. The perpetrators here were officials of the state of Florida.
Lethal injection is sold as a kinder, gentler form of execution. In theory, after inserting an intravenous line into the prisoner's vein, a barbiturate is meant to knock a person unconscious, so he feels no pain. Then a second drug, a paralysing agent, should paralyse the prisoner and stop his lungs from operating. Finally, a third drug, potassium chloride, should stop his heart. This procedure is used in 37 states and by the federal government.
Here is how it goes wrong:
if the dose of the barbiturate is not a high enough, or if the IV is not inserted properly (as appears to have happened with Diaz), the prisoner remains awake. He is able to feel pain.
The second drug then paralyses him, so he is unable to move, speak or cry out. This paralysing agent slowly suffocates him, but he is frozen into silence.
The third drug shocks the heart so severely it stops beating, but if the prisoner is still awake at this point, the pain is unbearable.
In a separate case last week, a federal judge found evidence that the last six men executed in California suffered extreme pain as they died.
Two weeks ago, judges in Ohio pondered evidence of similar torture there.
Missouri has already halted executions for the same reason.
Over the past few months, executions have had to be stopped in nine US states and the federal system.
Some may say that no punishment is too gruesome for a murderer, that Diaz got what he deserved.
This assumes, first, that society wants to become a serial killer, in a particularly savage way, and second, that the system got it right.
Diaz stated on the gurney that he was innocent of this crime. Since 1977, 123 people on death row in the US have been proven innocent, and Florida leads the way in mistakes, with 22 prisoners sentenced to death already exonerated.
But the true test of the system is not the number of prisoners lucky enough to have a lawyer who uncovered the evidence to set them free, but those whose executions were not stopped.
And so the question remains: did Florida brutally kill an innocent man last week?