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by Mark Weisenmiller

Lethal Injection May Not Be Painless And Humane

(IPS) TAMPA -- A botched execution by lethal injection in Florida in December has raised to new levels the controversy surrounding capital punishment and focused attention on this method of carrying out a death sentence.

Death row inmate Angel Nieves Diaz, 55, took 34 minutes to die on Dec. 13, 2006. A lethal mixture of chemicals injected into his left arm missed his vein. The chemicals spilled out onto his flesh. The bungled execution meant it took twice as long for Diaz to die than if no mistake had been made.

The debacle caused outgoing Florida Governor Jeb Bush to announce a moratorium on all state executions while a specially created commission investigated precisely what went wrong during the Diaz execution.

The 11-member commission, including three doctors, presented its report to Florida's new Governor Charlie Crist on Mar. 1. It said it was unable to determine whether Diaz experienced pain during his execution. But it called on Florida to investigate whether the three-chemical lethal cocktail now being used should be replaced with something else.

A day after the report's publication, Governor Crist announced that he was directing the secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, James McDonough, to study lethal injection procedures in all 37 U.S. states where this was still being used for executions. He also ordered McDonough to decide which of the report's recommendations should be immediately implemented.

But neither the report nor governor's quick response are likely to halt the slowly building anti-death penalty movement in the United States. This has been growing since the Diaz execution. A three-state survey by IPS showed that worldwide media attention generated by the Diaz execution was also reflected domestically by an increase in public interest in anti-death penalty organizations.

"Executions have been too long exempted from public view," said Mark Elliott of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He confirmed his organization had been receiving more calls and e-mails than usual since the Diaz execution.

In Virginia, a typically conservative Republican state, there had been a "gradual increase" in public inquiries to the organization Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The organization's head, Jack Dryden-Travers, said the Diaz execution was "slowly turning people off the death penalty here in Virginia."

On the west coast in California, a state traditionally liberal and Democratic, interest in the death penalty issue was also on the increase after the Diaz execution. Lance Lindsey, executive director of Death Penalty Focus of California, said his organization was getting many inquiries because of the Diaz execution. "It has created more interest in the death penalty among Californians. General support for the death penalty continues to wane."

He added that his state was currently looking into "lethal injection procedures and also the medical training of executioners."

The issue of the competence and training of state executioners surfaced dramatically during the Florida commission's questioning of Diaz's executioner. Out of sight and speaking into a telephone in a muffled voice, the executioner told the commission that he had "no medical training and no qualifications."

Carol Weihrer, president of Anesthesia Awareness, was also present in the room on the same day the executioner gave evidence. "I heard him -- I believe that it was a man -- testify that he didn't know who mixed the chemicals, or if the person who mixed the chemicals had any medical training," she told IPS.

In 1998, Weihrer was operated on for the removal of an eye. She told the commission that for the operation she was given an anaesthetic which contained a derivative of one of the three chemicals used in the deadly cocktail given to Diaz. The anaesthetic did not take full effect and she could literally feel her eye being removed, she told the commission.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, confirmed to IPS that it was not uncommon in other states for lethal injections to be administered by prison officers, not doctors. "Doctors don't want to participate because it goes against their Hippocratic Oath," he said, adding that there were now "11 states that have holds on lethal injections."

The American Medical Association has a clear and unambiguous ruling "strictly prohibiting" doctors from participating in state executions. Last July, the association widely circulated its guidelines specifically covering lethal injections. No medical practitioner was allowed to prescribe drugs for an execution, administer drugs or participate in an execution in any way.

Doctors were also barred from pronouncing an executed person dead. Doctors were under oath to protect lives and any form of participation in executions "erodes public confidence in the medical profession," said William G. Plested III, president of the association.

The Florida commission has called for more training for its state executioners and clearer instructions on execution procedures. A number of other recommendations have been suggested. One considered especially significant was from State Senator Victor Crist, known as a vociferous supporter of the death penalty who played a major role in the framing of Florida's law on lethal injections. He told reporters that he was considering asking the lawmakers to now allow audio recordings of all future executions.

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Albion Monitor   March 15, 2007   (

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