Florida's 3-Month Execution Ban Lapses; Now What?

Florida's 90-day moratorium on the death penalty ends today with a commission's recommendations to Gov. Charlie Crist. The moratorium was imposed after the state bungled an execution.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. In Florida, a commission has recommended changing the way prisoners are executed by lethal injection. Back in December, Florida botched an execution. The condemned man had to be given a second dose of lethal drugs. That led to the formation of this commission, and as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the panel has raised questions about one of the drugs Florida and 36 other states use.

GREG ALLEN: There was very little about Angel Diaz's execution on December 13th that went right. It took 34 minutes, twice as long as usual. When prison officials were forced to administer a second round of lethal drugs, some witnesses said they saw Diaz grimace, as if in pain.

On that question, whether Angel Diaz was conscious or in pain during his execution, the commission was unable to reach a conclusion. One reason is that when Diaz's execution went awry, many lethal-injection protocols went out the window.

We found there was confusion.

ALLEN: State Judge Stan Morris is one of the commission members. He says although the warden was supposed to be in charge, he deferred to others. Many other protocols also weren't followed. During the execution process, prison personnel mistakenly inserted the IV needles all the way through Diaz's veins, delivering the three lethal drugs not into his bloodstream but into fatty tissue from which they were absorbed much more slowly.

When it was clear something was wrong, prison staff inserted an IV needle into Diaz's other arm, again somehow pushing it through the vein. What's not clear, Judge Morris says, is whether the first drug, a painkiller, had taken effect before Diaz was administered the second drug, a paralyzing agent called pancuronium bromide.

Judge STAN MORRIS: The basic problem that could not be resolved here is did that second drug take effect before the first drug, and if does, it will block the inmate from being able to express the fact that they are in the proper depth of unconsciousness and that they are suffering.

ALLEN: As part of its report, the commission recommended that Florida Governor Charlie Crist consider changing the chemicals used in lethal injection and evaluate whether a paralytic drug like pancuronium bromide should be used at all. The commission also recommended that procedures be adopted to make sure that the condemned person is fully unconscious before the second and third drugs are given, but Morris says that raises another issue: how much training and medical expertise should be required of personnel carrying out the execution.

Judge MORRIS: This is an execution, not a medical procedure. It is the antithesis of a medical procedure. Yet in order to effectively and humanely administer this procedure, you have to have people, not necessarily doctors, but people who are trained in some of the arts that medicine is training in.

ALLEN: The Florida commission avoided making any recommendations that would require the presence of a physician or other medical professionals, in part because ethical guidelines prohibit them from playing any role in executions. Executions are currently on hold in Florida while the state reviews the lethal-injection process. Governor Crist says he'll review the recommendations and work to make sure that Florida's death penalty uses the most humane procedures possible. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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