Monday, 30 June 2008

Florida set to resume executions

Florida set to resume executions

Published: Monday, June 30, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 29, 2008 at 11:24 p.m.

The Gainesville Sun

A gurney sits in the Florida State Prison's new execution chamber this year. The chamber has been redesigned after the botched execution of Angel Nieves Diaz on Dec. 13, 2006. It allows better views of the prisoner during the lethal injection process.

Florida is set to put convicted child killer Mark David Schwab to death Tuesday, resuming executions for the first time since a botched execution more than 18 months ago.

In that time, the state has made changes to the lethal injection process such as redesigning the death chamber and adding a step to ensure an inmate is unconscious before lethal drugs are injected,

But critics say the state failed to address problems with the drugs themselves and training of the people administering them.

"If you keep doing what you've done in the past, why do you not expect the same result?" asked Peter Cannon, an attorney representing Schwab for the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel's Tampa office.

Florida and the three dozen other states with lethal injection use a similar three-drug combination in executions. Inmates are first injected with a sedative, then a paralyzing agent and finally a drug that stops the heart.

Legal challenges have raised questions about the drugs. Schwab's appeal suggests Florida's high dosage of the sedative slows the effect of the other drugs. An Ohio judge earlier this month ordered the state to drop two of the drugs and deliver only a massive dosage of the sedative.

Members of a commission studying Florida's execution method recommended the state consider discontinuing use of the paralyzing agent, which is banned in the euthanization of pets. The commission also recommended the state look into updating all the chemicals used in the process.

But the Florida Department of Corrections decided to stick with the existing drugs because they're the same ones used in other states, said spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.

"Right now, this is the protocol that other states are using, so we didn't want to deviate from that," she said.

Unless a court issues a stay, Schwab will be executed at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Florida State Prison near Starke. Schwab was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Junny Rios-Martinez in 1991.

His execution would end a hiatus that started with the botched execution of Angel Diaz and continued with the U.S. Supreme Court considering a legal challenge to lethal injection.

The execution of Diaz, who appeared to be wincing in pain and required a second round of lethal drugs, led to the appointment of the commission that studied Florida's execution process. The commission found IV lines had been pushed through Diaz's veins and recommended changes to prevent the problem from happening again.

Before executions could resume, however, the U.S. Supreme Court took up a lethal injection challenge that put executions on hold across the country. In April, the court issued a decision upholding lethal injection in a Kentucky case, Baze v. Reese.

The high court ruling didn't end the debate over lethal injection, said Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School who specializes in death penalty issues.

"Baze didn't close doors at all," she said. "It left a wide-open door."

Denno said an Ohio judge's decision this month to drop two of the three drugs in the combination could start a trend of such cases. She said attention to lethal injection has also spurred a wave of new research exposing flaws in the method.

"This is stoking the fire of the issue," she said.

University of Miami researcher Teresa Zimmers has taken part in three studies of executions. She said one problem with lethal injection is that states fail to adjust the drug dosage depending on the inmate's body weight or medical history.

"That one-size-fits-all approach doesn't seem to be working well," Zimmers said.

While states use the same drugs, they deliver different amounts. Florida administers five grams of the sedative sodium pentothal, compared to two grams in Georgia and Ohio. Florida officials have argued the larger amount ensures an inmate is unconscious.

But Cannon studied previous executions in the state, finding the larger dose could be interfering with other drugs. Florida executions lasted 13.8 minutes on average - longer than the time a state expert testified they should take, and longer than the average times in Georgia and Ohio.

Schwab's appeal suggests the sedative is slowing the effect of the other drugs. But Dr. Kayser Enneking, chairwoman of the anesthesiology department in UF's College of Medicine, questioned that conclusion.

"I'm not sure that a larger dosage would have any effect on slowing the effect of the other drugs," she said.

There are also questions about the paralytic drug. Because the drug can mask unconsciousness, the American Veterinary Medical Association bans its use in euthanizing animals.

Some members of Florida's commission, including Gainesville Circuit Court Judge Stan Morris, suggested the state consider dropping use of the paralyzing drug. State officials argued the drug serves a purpose by masking involuntary convulsions that could shock observers, including the victim's family.

Denno said an Ohio case shows the drug issue is fertile legal ground.

Earlier this month, an Ohio judge ordered the state to use only a massive dosage of the sedative drug to execute inmates - the same method used in euthanizing animals, but a method that could make executions last as long as 45 minutes.

Zimmers said states are essentially conducting unethical medical experiments with inmates in continually tweaking execution procedures.

"They're pretty much arbitrary decisions made in some cases by judges," she said.

But medical ethics have limited the involvement of doctors in the process. Florida shields the identity of medical professionals involved in executions, going so far as to mask the doctor who declares inmates dead.

Enneking said those ethical constraints, as well as the fact the drugs were made for purposes other than causing death, make it difficult to identify problems with the method.

"There's no perfect way to do this as far as I can tell," she said.

Zimmers said doctors are already involved in the process, so it's time for them to apply medical knowledge to lethal injection.

"If it's so ethically loaded, it demands it should be examined," she said.

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