Sunday, 14 October 2007

Court weighs halting state executions

State justices may rule to wait on U.S. Supreme Court ruling

In this file photograph, death row inmate Ian Lightbourne looks at papers with attorney Bret Strand. The state Supreme Court heard arguments today on whether to stay executions until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on lethal injection.


TALLAHASSEE - Florida Supreme Court justices will have to decide whether to put future state executions on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the use of lethal injections.In hearing two state cases Thursday - including one from Marion County - that challenged the use of lethal injection as unconstitutionally cruel, several justices said they had concerns with allowing more state executions while the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a Kentucky case.

In that case, two inmates are arguing that the drug cocktail used to execute prisoners causes needless pain. The nation's highest court is expected to decide that case sometime next year."Why in the world would we move forward and approve an execution when there is some possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will give specific guidance on this very issue?" asked Justice Harry Lee Anstead. "I'm having difficulty seeing what the urgency is in going forward with an execution when we're about to get the law from the horse's mouth."

At immediate issue is the scheduled Nov. 15 execution of Mark Schwab, convicted of raping and killing 11-year-old Junny Rios-Martinez in Brevard County in 1991. But the state court is also facing a more direct challenge of the lethal injection method from Ian Lightbourne, convicted of killing Nancy O'Farrell in Marion County in 1981.Lightbourne, who has yet to be scheduled for his execution, challenged the use of lethal injection following the execution of Angel Diaz last December, when the inmate took some 34 minutes to die and officials later determined his protracted death was the result of a botched procedure.

No Florida prisoner has been executed since Diaz. But Gov. Charlie Crist ended the moratorium when he signed Schwab's death warrant in July.

On Thursday, Crist seemed to indicate he wanted the execution carried out."There are a lot of families that are waiting for justice to be done for the loss of a loved one and my heart bleeds for them," Crist said.Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Nunnelley told the state Supreme Court that the state should resume using lethal injections, arguing that the recent revision of the Department of Corrections' execution protocol would withstand any ruling from the federal courts."Florida's procedures will meet any standards that they might choose to apply," Nunnelley said.

He also told the state justices that they should leave the decision of blocking executions to the federal court rather than deciding that themselves.But in challenging Florida's continued use of lethal injections, Suzanne Keffer, a lawyer for Lightbourne, argued that although the state has changed its execution procedures, there are no assurances that problems won't happen again."We can no longer rely on the DOC to do what they say they're going to do," she said. "The Diaz execution was the best evidence of that."

Florida prisoners are executed using three drugs. First, the inmates are given sodium pentothal, a sedative that is used to make the prisoner unconscious. It is followed by two other drugs designed to paralyze the prisoner and then stop his heart.

Keffer said Florida's procedure was flawed and prisoners may face a painful death because the state is not using more highly trained medical personnel or even a doctor to determine if the sodium pentothal has worked properly. Nunnelley said the prisoners receive 5,000 milligrams of the drug, more than 10 times the amount used in a typical surgery procedure. "We are using far, far, far more of the anesthetic drug than is necessary to anesthetize the defendant," he said.

Mark Gruber, a lawyer representing Schwab, said he believes the state court should halt Florida executions until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the Kentucky case."One would think the court, like other courts around the country, would want to hold off and see what the Supreme Court has to say," he said.The state Supreme Court did not indicate when it would rule in the Lightbourne and Schwab cases.

Joe Follick of the Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.

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