Legal Wrangling Spared Inmates On Death Row
Published: December 29, 2007
The state did not execute any death row inmates this year for the first time in 25 years, the result of legal and ethical challenges to lethal injection that temporarily have halted executions nationwide.
Florida was under a moratorium for the first six months of the year, after the botched execution of Angel Diaz in 2006 triggered a state commission's review of the lethal injection process.
Gov. Charlie Crist signed a death warrant in July, but the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the execution as part of a national de facto moratorium while it considers the appeals of two Kentucky inmates who are challenging the same lethal three-drug combination of drugs used in Florida.
Experts say the nation's attitudes have shifted away from using the death penalty, leading to the increased scrutiny of the lethal injection process. But support remains higher in Florida, which is expected to begin executions again once the Supreme Court rules on the matter.
There is little chance the nation's highest court will put an end to the death penalty altogether when it decides the Kentucky case next year. And the Florida Supreme Court already has ruled this year that the state's updated lethal injection protocol is constitutional, and not cruel and unusual punishment.
"Anybody who's gotten a stay is still on death row, and as soon as there's clearance there will be a date set," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that tracks death penalty cases.
"At some time, you might see Florida set a whole bunch in one month," Dieter said.
There are three active death warrants in Florida, including one for Robert Trease, a man convicted of shooting and slashing the throat of a Sarasota man in 1995. At least two dozen death row inmates have exhausted their appeals and are eligible for a death warrant, according to the state's Commission on Capital Cases.
A spokesman for Crist said each death warrant is handled individually, and that it is irresponsible to speculate on what the governor would do after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.
But Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who served on the state commission that studied lethal injection this year, said he and Gov. Crist share the same conservative values when it comes to protecting victims and thinks the governor would start "cranking them out" after a decision.
"Our protocols, our procedures, our checks and balances are contemporary and at the highest standards worldwide," said Sen. Crist, who is not related to Gov. Crist.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled this year that an updated process, including additional training for execution teams and installing closed-circuit monitoring to check on the inmate's face and IV access points, ensured prisoners are not subjected to needless pain and suffering during the procedure.
But signing many warrants all at once also could have political ramifications if voters think the governor has too much enthusiasm for executions, said Robert Batey, a professor at Stetson University College of Law. The most executions in one year in modern times were eight in 1984, and the state has averaged about 2.35 executions a year since 1983.
"I think there is some benefit to presenting the image of a measured, reasoned approach," Batey said.
Florida is not alone with death row problems: Lethal injections are on hold in other states and the U.S. Supreme Court halted three other executions.
The New Jersey governor ended the death penalty in that state this month and the enthusiasm for executions waned nationwide in 2007, with the fewest executions in a decade.
Those who track the death penalty said prosecutors are seeking the penalty less because jurors expect stronger evidence than in other cases.
The process had enough safeguards to ensure that prisoners are not subjected to needless pain and suffering during the procedure, the state Supreme Court ruled.
Even after the U.S. Supreme Court decision expected next year, death row inmates still can question whatever guidelines come down.
"There's going to be a challenge," Dieter said.
EXECUTIONS IN FLORIDA
DEATH ROW: State records show 388 inmates are on Florida's death row, including 19 sent there in 2007. They face execution only after all their appeals have been exhausted and the governor signs a death warrant.
PROCEDURE USED: Florida's execution procedure is similar to the method used in 36 other states that use lethal injection. Inmates are injected with sodium pentothal to render them unconscious, followed by pancuronium bromide to paralyze the muscles. Potassium chloride then is injected to stop the heart.
THE MORATORIUM: Florida began the year with a seven-month moratorium on executions after the state's botched killing of Angel Diaz in December 2006. It took 34 minutes for Diaz to die - twice as long as normal - because the execution team pushed the needles through his veins. He grimaced and asked twice, "What's happening?"