- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006

From combined dispatches

Gov. Jeb Bush suspended all executions in Florida after a medical examiner said yesterday that prison officials botched the insertion of the needles when a convicted killer was put to death earlier this week.

Separately, a federal judge in California extended a moratorium on executions in the state, declaring that its method of lethal injection runs the risk of violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In Florida, medical examiner Dr. William Hamilton said Wednesday’s execution of Angel Nieves Diaz took 34 minutes — twice as long as usual — and required a rare second dose of lethal chemicals because the needles were inserted clear through his veins and into the flesh in his arms. The chemicals are supposed to go into the veins.

Dr. Hamilton, who performed the autopsy, refused to say whether he thought Diaz died a painful death.

“I am going to defer answers about pain and suffering until the autopsy is complete,” he said, adding that the results were preliminary and other tests might take several weeks.

Diaz, 55, was put to death for murdering the manager of a Miami topless bar during a holdup in 1979.

Mr. Bush created a commission to examine the state’s lethal-injection process in light of Diaz’s case, and he halted the signing of any more death warrants until the panel completes its final report by March 1.

The governor said he wants to ensure the process does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, as some death penalty foes argued after Diaz’s execution. Florida has 374 persons on death row; it has carried out four executions this year.

Gov.-elect Charlie Crist planned to continue the moratorium when he takes office in January, spokeswoman Vivian Myrtetus said.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled in San Jose that California’s “implementation of lethal injection is broken, but it can be fixed.”

Judge Fogel said the lawsuit brought by convicted murderer and rapist Michael Morales raised the question of whether a three-drug cocktail administered by the San Quentin State Prison is so painful that it “offends” the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The judge said he was compelled “to answer that question in the affirmative.”

California has been under a capital punishment moratorium since February, when Judge Fogel called off Morales’ execution amid concerns that condemned inmates might suffer excruciating deaths.

Morales, 47, of Stockton, raped and fatally beat a 17-year-old Lodi girl 25 years ago.

Judge Fogel found substantial evidence that the last six men executed at San Quentin might have been conscious when lethal drugs were administered.

He ordered anesthesiologists to be on hand, or demanded that a licensed medical professional inject a large, fatal dose of a sedative instead of the additional paralyzing agent and heart-stopping drugs that are normally used. But no medical professional was willing to participate.

Attorneys for Morales said in a lawsuit that he might appear unconscious after being injected with a sedative, but internally he would suffer excruciating pain, “burning veins and heart failure,” once the paralyzing and the death drugs were administered.

In Florida, the medical examiner’s findings yesterday contradicted the explanation given by prison officials, who said Diaz needed the second dose because liver disease caused him to metabolize the lethal drugs more slowly. Dr. Hamilton said that although there were records that Diaz had hepatitis, his liver appeared normal.

Executions in Florida normally take no more than about 15 minutes, with the inmate rendered unconscious and motionless within three to five minutes. But Diaz appeared to be moving 24 minutes after the first injection, grimacing, blinking, licking his lips, blowing and appearing to mouth words.

As a result of the chemicals going into Diaz’s arms around the elbow, he had an 12-inch chemical burn on his right arm and an 11-inch chemical burn on his left arm, Dr. Hamilton said.

Florida Corrections Secretary James McDonough said the execution team did not see any swelling of the arms, which would have been an indication that the chemicals were going into tissues and not veins.

Diaz’s attorney, Suzanne Myers Keffler, reacted angrily to the findings.

“This is complete negligence on the part of the state,” she said. “When he was still moving after the first shot of chemicals, they should have known there was a problem and they shouldn’t have continued. This shows a complete disregard for Mr. Diaz. This is disgusting.”

David Elliot, spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said specialists his group contacted had suspected that liver disease was not the explanation for the problem.

“Florida has certainly deservedly earned a reputation for being a state that conducts botched executions, whether it’s electrocution or lethal injection,” Mr. Elliot said. “We just think the Florida death penalty system is broken from start to finish.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld executions — by hanging, firing squad, electric chair and gas chamber — despite the pain they might cause, but has left unsettled the issue of whether the pain is unconstitutionally excessive.

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