TAMPA - An inmate whose execution was botched last month wasn't writhing in pain, but merely stretching to see a clock in the death chamber, the warden who oversaw the execution testified Monday.
On the first day of hearings on the lethal injection procedure, a state commission heard dramatically different versions of Angel Nieves Diaz's Dec. 13 execution in Florida State Prison near Starke.
The warden and two other members of the execution team said Diaz didn't exhibit signs of distress, while a witness with a front-row seat said the inmate looked like he was grimacing in pain.
But the testimony did clear up one lingering question about the execution: Medical staff made key decisions on the insertion of IV lines and dispensing of lethal chemicals, defying ethical guidelines that restrict their involvement in executions.
Diaz's execution took 34 minutes, about 20 minutes longer than the typical execution. Florida State Prison Warden Randall Bryant said Diaz appeared to look at a clock during the procedure but gave no indication of problems.
"He looked around the room but made no sounds of someone in distress," he said.
But Neal Dupree, Diaz's attorney and an execution witness, said his client grimaced and appeared to be agitated. Dupree, providing a version of events similar to news media witnesses, said he thought Diaz was gasping for air at one point.
"He almost appeared to be a fish out of water," he said.
Following the execution, the Alachua County Medical Examiner reported that an improperly inserted IV caused lethal chemicals to seep into Diaz's tissue. The problem prolonged the execution and caused Diaz to suffer nearly foot-long chemical burns on his arms.
Then-Gov. Jeb Bush subsequently halted all executions and created a commission to investigate. The 11-member panel consists of lawmakers, doctors and members of the criminal justice system, including Gainesville Circuit Judge Stan Morris.
Diaz's niece, Sol Otero, said she was dissatisfied with the group's first day of work. She said she feels prison officials aren't being forthright about what happened.
"I feel like everyone is trying to cover this up - especially Florida State Prison," she said.
The first day of testimony touched on the medical soundness of the procedure and involvement of medical personnel. The testimony painted a picture of a procedure where doctors make key decisions, but are kept at arm's length from actually serving as executioners.
A task force commissioned by Department of Corrections Secretary James McDonough found that execution team members didn't report problems inserting an IV and violated procedure in changing the way the lethal drugs were dispensed. But the report didn't identify who made those decisions.
Bryant said medical staff on the execution team advise the individuals dispensing the lethal drugs. He said he relied on the medical staff to determine if there were problems.
"My discipline would not allow me to override someone in the medical field about a medical procedure," he said.
One member of the medical staff, prison physician assistant William F. Mathews, testified he observed the execution but didn't actively participate.
He said the medical staff who inserted IV lines and instructed executioners on dispensing drugs have the experience needed to make such decisions.
"The people involved are highly qualified in the particular areas that they serve in," he said.
The issue of medical involvement in executions presents a potential problem for both members of the execution team and the commission.
American Medical Association guidelines restrict doctors from having any involvement in executions, from pronouncing death to advising on the process.
While public records show the names of three doctors who pronounce death in executions, the Florida Department of Corrections refuses to confirm their involvement. Department officials said they would allow doctors to testify before the commission only if their identities were protected.
The commission decided these doctors would provide testimony by phone at a future meeting, as a way to conceal their identities. Members also decided to hear testimony from other doctors on alternatives to inserting an IV line into an inmate's arm.
But Tampa anesthesiologist Dr. David Varlotta said he was concerned about getting those doctors to testify about improving the procedure.
"I think we have to be careful that we don't make lethal injection a procedure of medicine," he said.
The commission is scheduled to hear more testimony Feb. 5 and 9. It plans to submit a preliminary report Feb. 15 and final report March 1.
The next two meetings could be critical to clearing up conflicting versions of the Diaz execution.
Diaz appeared to be speaking during the procedure, but execution team members differed on what he was saying. Bryant said Diaz mumbled something incoherent, while other team members reported Diaz said, ''What's happening?'' twice during the process.
The question of whether Diaz was expressing pain appears to be the biggest difference in opinion.
State Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, said he believed that the observers' different beliefs about the death penalty could have led to different perceptions.
Crist, the chairman of the Senate criminal justice appropriations committee, is a strong supporter of the death penalty. He said he trusted the version of events from members of the execution team inside the death chamber, as opposed to witnesses separated by a glass window.
"It's two different environments on either side of that glass," he said.
Mark Elliot of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty withheld judgment about the process until further meetings. But he said he hoped the panel would ask harder questions to get to the truth. "It's the secrecy that has caused the problems," he said.
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.