Opponents Challenge Death Penalty in Florida

Florida officials are eager to resume carrying out death penalties following this month's Supreme Court decision, which found that Kentucky's use of lethal injection does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. State officials say Florida's lethal injection protocols follow what the Supreme Court approved in Kentucky. But attorneys for death row inmates say Kentucky is different from Florida.

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It's been a week since the U.S. Supreme Court appealed the use of lethal injection in carrying out the death penalty. Since then, Georgia and Texas have set new execution dates. Mississippi and Alabama plan to do so soon. Florida with 388 people on death row also wants to resume executions. But officials say they still face potential legal obstacles.

From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: Hours after the Supreme Court announced the decision upholding lethal injection, Florida Governor Charlie Crist said he was grateful for the ruling and promised executions would soon resume.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): I've already asked our staff and the general counsel's office to look at other cases that might now be right for the signing of a subsequent death certificate.

SMITH: The case considered by the Supreme Court came from Kentucky and concerned that state's use of a three drug protocol for lethal injection. It's the same drug combination used in Florida and 33 other states. Florida's attorney general, Bill McCollum, says he believes the court's ruling clears away one of the main legal obstacles in death penalty cases.

Mr. BILL McCOLLUM (Attorney General, Florida): I believe they're pretty clear in saying that a lethal injection cocktail like we have in Florida which is the same basic cocktail they had in Kentucky where that case was, that that's perfectly constitutional. It's not cruel and unusual punishment. So, I don't think that any big impediment is going to remain there.

ALLEN: But defense attorneys here say, while the three drug combination is the same, in other ways Florida is much different than Kentucky. For one thing Florida's use of the death penalty has long been surrounded by problems.

Ms. SUZANNE KEFFER (Defense Attorney, Ian Lightbourne): Florida has a history of - the Department of corrections has a history of not following what they say they're going to do.

ALLEN: Suzanne Keffer is an attorney representing inmates on Florida's death row. The state's problems administering the death penalty were most recently on display the last time an execution was carried out. In 2006, convicted murderer Angel Diaz was put to death through lethal injection, but was seen to writhe and grimace during the procedure. And it took him 34 minutes to die, twice as long as in most executions. An investigation later found that death chamber personnel had incorrectly inserted the IV needles in the Diaz's veins. Again, Suzanne Keffer.

Ms. KEFFER: It's the best example I think of a botch of lethal injection, we so everything go wrong there that could go wrong. Florida's history also goes back to them carrying out executions in general. All the way back to electrocution. And there's opinions in which the court finds that they were not following their procedures.

ALLEN: In another well-publicized case in 1990, flames shot from the head of a Florida inmate as he was executed in the state's electric chair. Keffer says even setting aside the three-drug protocol, there are still many outstanding issues surrounding lethal injection, including the training and qualifications of the people who carry out the executions.

Following Angel Diaz's botched execution Florida's then Governor Jeb Bush appointed a commission that developed new death penalty procedures. The State's Attorney General Bill McCollum says with the new protocols there will now be additional cameras in the death chamber. And better testing to determine that the inmate is unconscious before the killing drug is administered.

Mr. McCOLLUM: There's a clear chain of command that only the team warden(ph) has the ability to move forward based on a whole set up procedures you're going through on a checklist. It's hard to conceive how Florida's death penalty procedure could be successfully challenged in the future. But there will be people who will try, of course.

ALLEN: Currently, there's only one active death warrant in Florida, that's for a convicted murderer and child rapist, Mark Dean Schwab. The case is currently on appeal before the Supreme Court. McCollum is confident, based on its recent ruling, the court is likely to reject that appeal and it will then be up to the governor to pick a date for Schwab's execution.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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