Review of lethal injection complete
A panel says the state can do better and will submit suggestions to Gov. Crist this week
By CHRIS TISCH
Published February 25, 2007
TAMPA - A commission that has studied Florida's lethal injection procedures acknowledged Saturday that what happened to Angel Diaz likely will happen again.
But the panelists said the Department of Corrections can be better prepared to handle a similar situation. After a seven-hour meeting Saturday, they will make recommendations to Gov. Charlie Crist this week.
Diaz, condemned for the 1979 murder of a Miami bar manager, took nearly twice as long as normal to die during his Dec. 13 execution. An autopsy showed needles tore through Diaz's veins, spilling lethal chemicals into his flesh and creating the possibility of suffering prohibited by the Constitution. He suffered foot-long burns on each arm.
The panel found that execution team members made a series of errors that strayed from state protocols. But the commission also decided that the protocols need to offer more detailed instructions on how to identify problems and cope with them.
"We know for sure that this is going to happen again," said panelist Harry K. Singletary, a former state corrections secretary. "But what we are telling the governor is when it happens again, here's what we think the Department of Corrections should do."
The panel also suggested Crist review whether the state should consider eliminating one drug in the three-drug lethal injection cocktail. Some panelists wondered if the second drug, which causes paralysis, is necessary. The drug prevents inmates from involuntarily shuddering while they are dying.
The drug may make it easier for witnesses to watch and perhaps makes the dying process seem more dignified, but the paralysis also could prevent an inmate from expressing pain, leaving a false sense that the execution went smoothly.
Perhaps most significantly, the panel will recommend that an execution team member check inmates to ensure they are unconscious from the first drug, a powerful sedative. The execution can continue only if the inmate is unconscious.
The team also must assure that the IV in the inmate's arm has not been compromised.
Experts told the panel over the last few weeks that needles in Diaz's arms likely tore through the veins.
Some witnesses reported seeing Diaz grimace or wince during the execution, though department officials said they didn't see any signs of pain or distress. Panelists said conflicting testimony did not allow them to conclude whether he suffered.
Other recommendations made by the panel include:
- That the execution team train and rehearse more with all members present. Testimony revealed that the executioner did not rehearse with the rest of the team and hadn't received any training in seven years.
- That two Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents witness the execution, one from where the executioners are hidden and one from the witness room. The agents also should take notes.
- That the warden be in charge of the execution. Testimony revealed that though the warden said he was in charge, he deferred to medical staff and was not told of steps taken when Diaz's execution started to go wrong.
- That if one vein breaks, the execution team should start on another vein but return to the beginning of the drug cycle. During the Diaz execution, the team went to a second vein, but skipped the sedative, leaving Diaz potentially vulnerable to the suffocating effects of the second drug and an excruciating burning sensation from the third drug.
- At least one member of the execution team should speak the inmate's first language. None of the team members spoke Spanish, Diaz's native language.
While some panelists said the medical staff on the execution team should thoroughly review which vein to access, a doctor on the panel said that could call for a physician to violate ethical standards that forbid involvement in capital punishment.
Even so, panelists heard testimony that needles will punch through veins perhaps 15 percent of the time - even when the procedure is overseen by medical personnel, as Diaz's execution was.
"This was the product of highly trained medical personnel," said panel member David Varlotta, a Tampa anesthesiologist. "And I'd submit in this case you'll never get away from the inherent risks and the inherent failures of a pseudo-medical procedure."
[Last modified February 25, 2007, 00:26:23]