BY FRED GRIMM
Serendipity waited until the last 34 minutes before bestowing a deeper meaning onto the thug life of Angel Nieves Diaz.
His résumé included armed robber, gang leader, low-rent terrorist. He shot a cop. He murdered his prison drug counselor, stabbing him 19 times. He brutally beat a prison guard and escaped from a Puerto Rican prison. He led a jail break from a lockup in Connecticut. He was convicted of robbing a Miami strip bar and killing the club manager. His best defense was that an accomplice pulled the trigger.
Most of the objections to the impending execution of Diaz, 55, known as ''Daddy of Death'' among his fellow gangsters, were based on principled opposition to capital punishment. No one argued that Florida was about to snuff out a worthy soul, imbued with remorse and worthy of redemption.
Daddy of Death was a brutal killer, worthy of forgetting. But those last 34 minutes granted him another kind of legacy.
The Florida Department of Corrections bungled his Dec. 13 execution. Instead of fading into unconsciousness in the first three or four minutes, witnesses said, Diaz appeared to remain aware, squinting his eyes, moving his jaws, grimacing as if in pain. An autopsy found that his executioner had plunged the needle past Diaz's vein and pumped the chemicals into fatty tissues, creating a long, slow, grotesque death watch.
Diaz's lawyers, trying to stave off execution, had argued that nationally, there have been so many instances of missed veins, excruciating delays and botched formulas that injecting the three-drug cocktail is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. The courts rejected the argument.
But on Dec. 13, Diaz provided the courts compelling evidence that, indeed, lethal injection is not a serene, dignified, painless, constitutional administration of justice. Two days later, Gov. Jeb Bush ordered a moratorium on executions and created a commission to investigate the constitutionality of lethal injection. He called it ``a matter of humanity . . . and common sense.''
Serendipity was not finished with Daddy of Death. The same day that Bush ordered a moratorium on lethal injections in Florida, a federal judge in San Jose ruled that California was so slipshod in applying lethal injection protocols that it amounted to cruel and usual punishment. The judge's review of six executions found that state's mindless procedures raised strong questions about whether condemned prisoners were going to an excruciating end.
U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel wrote, ``Given that the state is taking a human life, the pervasive lack of professionalism in the implementation [of the lethal protocol] is at the very least deeply disturbing.''
It was California. It might as well have been Florida.
The California ruling, two days after Angel Diaz died the kind of death described in California's death chamber, created a kind of synergy in the national death-penalty debate. Three days later, Maryland's Supreme Court halted executions there, finding that Maryland's protocols for administering the drugs were similarly flawed.
The often bungled process, the court ruled, affects ``not only the inmates and the correctional personnel, but the witnesses allowed to observe the execution. . .''
It was Maryland. It might as well have been Florida.
Questions about the protocols and constitutionality of lethal injection have led to moratoriums and reviews in North Carolina, New Jersey and Missouri. And Angel Nieves Diaz, the forgettable thug, has now become Exhibit No. 1.
Those last, pathetic 34 minutes re-made Daddy of Death into someone to be remembered.