Executioner's words disturb panel
By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
Published February 10, 2007
TAMPA - The lead executioner in a botched lethal injection testified on Friday that the team had to empty 14 syringes of chemicals and saline solution into Angel Diaz.
The executioner told a panel studying the state's lethal injection protocols that they pumped the cocktail into both of Diaz's arm. He surprised some observers by saying he had gone to the second arm in other executions as well.
He added that he did that on those other occasions on his own volition - not on the advice of medical staff.
"That's because I thought I should do it," he said, later adding, "In my opinion, when the execution begins the executioner is in charge."
When panelists asked him about his medical training, he said, "I have no medical training or qualifications."
The testimony dismayed capital defense lawyers attending the hearing.
"He says he's in charge, but he says he has no medical experience," said D. Todd Doss, who represents several death row inmates and has come to represent Diaz's family. "He says he hasn't been trained in seven years? It's a joke. It's disgusting."
Diaz, condemned for the 1979 murder of a Miami topless bar manager, took 34 minutes to die, twice as long as normal. An autopsy showed he suffered foot-long chemical burns on both arms. The problems halted executions in the state and prompted former Gov. Jeb Bush to form the panel.
The executioner, and a nurse who also testified, talked to the panel over a phone line. Their names were not revealed in accordance with state law. Their voices were disguised by a device that made them sound warbled and electronic.
The executioner explained that the chemicals normally are injected into one arm, though a needle is inserted in the other arm in case something goes wrong with the first.
Diaz needed so much of the chemicals because the needles inserted into his arms tore through his veins and sprayed the chemicals into his flesh. Though the chemicals can kill someone if they seep into the flesh, it takes much longer and can cause severe pain.
The executioner testified that he had never participated in any run-throughs with fellow members of the execution team and had not received any renewed instructions in seven years, which is about how long ago the state adopted lethal injection to replace the electric chair.
Panelists did not press the man about how many executions he participated in or in which ones he needed to use the second arm.
The other person to testify was the nurse who threaded plastic needles into Diaz's veins.
The nurse described placing the needles into Diaz's arms, one of which proved difficult to thread. The nurse got the needle into the vein on a second attempt, but officials didn't tell the warden of the problem.
Doss, the defense attorney, said he has been disappointed during all the hearings because panelists haven't asked tougher and more direct questions of prison officials. He said they should have directly asked the nurse what went wrong.
"That's the elephant in the room: What went wrong?" Doss said. "The questioning is just pitiful."
Other states also have halted executions and likely are paying close attention to Florida's commission. The panel must present recommendations by March 1. They meet again Monday.
Acccounts of whether Diaz looked like he experienced pain vary between prison officials who said they saw no signs of pain and witnesses who said they did. Whether Diaz felt pain is important because the constitution forbids the government from causing anyone to endure cruel or unusual punishment.
Inmates are executed in Florida with a three-drug cocktail. The first drug is a painkiller that is supposed to put the person to sleep, the second drug causes paralysis and the third drug causes a fatal heart attack.
One recent study found the painkiller may wear off too soon. The third drug in the cocktail causes extreme burning, but because the second drug causes paralysis, the inmate would be unable to express pain.
In that regard, the panel heard testimony Friday from Carol Weihrer, who described a 1998 operation in which her eye was removed. She said the anesthesia didn't work and she could feel doctors tearing her eye out, but she couldn't move or scream because she had been paralyzed. She urged the panel not to subject inmates to that possibility.
"The sensation feels like ignited fuel is coursing through your veins," said Weihrer, who heads the Anesthesia Awareness Campaign. "Though I was screaming at the top of my lungs I knew no one could hear me. It's my belief that this is what happened to Angel Diaz. What I felt was cruel and unusual and no one should be subject to that."