Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Crash Course for Florida's Executioners

Mark Weisenmiller TAMPA, Jun 5 (IPS)

Two newly-trained teams of executioners committed to the principle of "humane and dignified death" are ready to go into action as soon as Florida's new governor Charlie Crist starts signing death warrants for the state's 380 death row inmates -- but no one knows yet who will be the first to be executed after the lifting of a four-month moratorium.

This was confirmed to IPS by Gretl Plessinger, a public relations officer at the Florida Department of Corrections. On May 9, Florida officially ended its moratorium on executions declared in mid-December. On the same day, Crist approved an array of proposals to improve the way the state carries out its executions by lethal injection.

The moratorium was announced on Dec. 15, two days after a Florida executioner fumbled repeatedly as he tried to find the vein in the left arm of Angel Diaz, a convicted killer. The execution did eventually succeed, but took more than half an hour -- at least twice as long as usual. Anti-death penalty activists all over the world protested amid suggestions that Diaz might have been conscious during some of the time and experienced excruciating pain. This would have been a violation of the U.S. constitution which bars cruel punishment.

The scale of the protest led outgoing governor John Ellis "Jeb" Bush, the man who had originally signed the Diaz death warrant, to declare a temporary moratorium on executions while a hastily-called 11-member commission investigated how to prevent a repetition. Nine other U.S. states also introduced moratoriums on their executions by lethal injection.

Florida is the first of these to lift its moratorium. Each of Florida's two new execution teams consisted of 10 people, Plessinger told IPS. They had been trained in "numerous" places, including Terre Haute in Indiana. Terre Haute is a high-security prison in the geographical centre of the U.S. Its death chamber, the only federal one in the country, was reopened after the Supreme Court reversed in 1967 its decision against the death penalty. It was there that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed by lethal injection in June 2001.

Governor Crist, widely-known for supporting capital punishment, has approved all the 37 recommendations proposed by the commission of investigation. The new rules require that a prison warden must be present to confirm that that a condemned inmate is unconscious before the death-producing drugs are injected, Plessinger said in a email response to questions submitted by IPS. This apparently addresses the concern that Diaz might have been aware that his executioner was struggling with his needles to complete the last part of his execution.

More lighting had been installed in the death chamber, Plessinger said. She side-stepped the question of whether Florida would be now increasing the dosages of the drugs in its lethal injections. But she confirmed that there would be no change in the make-up of the chemicals in the three-part lethal injection. The commission had been specifically asked to investigate whether the drugs used in Florida's executions should be replaced with something else.

"The department explored not only the drugs used in Florida, but other states and by the federal government," Plessinger said. "The drugs utilised by the Florida department of corrections are consistent with the drugs used in other jurisdictions." But Plessinger left open the possibility that changes in the prescription could be made later. "The department will continue to monitor developments in pharmacology," she said.

The three drugs used in the U.S. lethal injections include sodium pentothal, a general anaesthetic to make the inmate unconscious, pancuronium bromide to induce paralysis, and a final injection of potassium chloride to stop the heart.

Plessinger said she could not give the name of the next death row inmate to be executed. "The department of corrections does not determine who is executed. That decision is made by the governor's office," she said, adding: "At this time governor Crist has not signed any death warrants." But one death row inmate apparently threatened with imminent execution is Ian Deco Lightbourne.

In an effort to head this off, his lawyers have asked the courts to order the four reporters who witnessed the Diaz execution to produce their notes. The move was aimed at supporting their case that execution by lethal injection was unconstitutional and Lightbourne should be removed from death row. The request for the notes has been rejected, IPS has learned. But Susan Bunch, a lawyer representing one of the journalists, told IPS in a telephone interview that she did not think this was the end of the battle for Lightbourne's lawyers. "I didn't get the impression they were going to give up on this," she said.

Predictably, the adoption of the Florida commission report on lethal injections and the lifting of the moratorium on executions was criticised by U.S. death penalty abolition groups. "What they basically did was to take testimony, which was a step in the right direction," David Elliott, spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said. But he questioned how any study could be helpful when no state offered an example of good practice in the administration of lethal injections. He also questioned the thoroughness of the commission's work. Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the lifting of the moratorium was "out of step with public opinion".

The commission should have studied why Florida had "so many" botched executions, he said. It should have also looked at the alternatives to capital punishment. But the decision to lift the moratorium was welcomed by the Texas-based Justice for All, a pro-death penalty group with over 2,000 members in different states. Execution by lethal injection was the "most humane" means of execution, Diane Clements, its spokeswoman said.

Besides the 37 U.S. states which rely mainly on lethal injections, China, Guatemala and Thailand also use this method of execution. (END/2007)

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