Senior Assistant Attorney General Ken Nunnelley, left, confers Friday with St. Petersburg Times attorney Alison Steele after Judge Carven Angel squashed subpoenas issued to journalists who witnessed a 2006 lethal injection.
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Reporters won't have to testify in death row case
Lawyers for Marion murderer wanted journalists to recall botched execution.
OCALA - Reporters will not have to testify about what they saw at the botched execution of convicted murderer Angel Diaz in December 2006, a judge ruled Friday.
Instead attorneys for Ian Deco Lightbourne, 47, must rely on the testimony of at least 19 other witnesses to help build their case against the death penalty. Lightbourne was sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of Marion County horse breeder Nancy O'Farrell.
His attorneys are arguing the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment and subpoenaed four reporters who witnessed the Diaz execution to testify about what they saw. Diaz was put to death by lethal injection, but it took 34 minutes for him to die, twice as long as it usually takes. Authorities had to administer a second dose of the lethal drugs to kill him.
"Their observations here are extremely important," argued Lightbourne's lawyer Suzanne Keffer, an attorney with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel's office. "These witnesses are there to provide an account of what they saw. .Ê.Ê. Based on newspaper accounts, Mr. Diaz's body went through some quick, horrific movements."
The subpoenaed reporters included Ron Word of The Associated Press, Chris Tisch of the St. Petersburg Times, Nathan Crabbe of the Gainesville Sun, and Phil Long of the Miami Herald. Word, a longtime AP correspondent in Jacksonville, has covered nearly 50 executions.
Circuit Judge Carven Angel ruled Lightbourne's defense could call other execution witnesses. Keffer argued other witnesses have biases. The majority of those who saw Diaz die work for the Department of Corrections and claim they didn't see anything irregular. She said the reporters' testimony is needed because they were neutral observers.
"There is a clear problem in bias on either side arguably. .Ê.Ê. I think there is a need for a neutral party," Keffer said.
Lawyers representing the AP, the St. Petersburg Times and the Gainesville Sun argued in court journalists have "qualified privilege" in Florida which protects them from subpoenas. The state law requires lawyers to exhaust all other sources before trying to obtain testimony from news reporters.
Susan Bunch, who represented the Sun, argued defense lawyers needed to interview other people about the execution. She also said the journalists' accounts were published and therefore they already have reported what they saw.
At the hearing, Judge Angel also outlined some dates to keep the case moving. Keffer complained of being rushed to try the case.
"The state is rushing and rushing and denying Mr. Lightbourne the right to a fair hearing," she said. "I don't understand the rush here. I think there are important issues we need to take up."
Florida halted executions temporarily to investigate the Dec. 13 Diaz execution. He was sentenced to death for the slaying of the manager of a topless nightclub in Miami in 1979.
Officials said this week that executions could begin again as early as late May.
Lightbourne has been scheduled for executions twice before and has been granted two stays.
Mabel Perez may be reached at email@example.com or 867-4106.