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Executed man takes half an hour to die

Death penalty opponents outraged by botched lethal injection

    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Defense attorneys and death penalty opponents were outraged Thursday over an execution in which the condemned man took more than half an hour to die, needed a rare second dose of lethal chemicals, and appeared to grimace in his final moments.
    ‘‘I am definitely appalled at what happened. I have no doubt he suffered unduly,’’ Angel Nieves Diaz’s attorney, Suzanne Myers Keffer, said after Diaz died by lethal injection.
    Executions in Florida normally take about 15 minutes, with the inmate rendered unconscious and motionless within the first three to five minutes. But Diaz took 34 minutes to die and appeared to be moving for most of that time.
    Prison officials promised to investigate but insisted that Diaz felt no pain and that it was not unexpected a second dose would be required, because liver disease had affected his ability to metabolize the drugs. They offered no explanation for the grimace or why officials did not adjust the dosage from the start.
    Foes of capital punishment seized on the execution to argue that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, just as they did after two inmates’ heads caught fire in Florida’s electric chair in 1990 and 1997 and a condemned man suffered a severe nosebleed in 2000 during his electrocution.
    Those cases led Florida to get rid of the electric chair and switch to lethal injection, which was portrayed as more humane and more reliable.
    ‘‘This is paralleling to an extraordinary degree what was happening to the electric chair in Florida,’’ said Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor who has written extensively about the death penalty. ‘‘But this execution is worse. This inmate was conscious.’’
    David Elliot, spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Florida seemed to be ‘‘developing a national reputation for having problems with the way it conducts its executions.’’
    Diaz’s relatives said he did not have liver disease, and accused Florida officials of lying about details of the execution. And one medical expert vehemently disputed the notion that liver disease interfered with the lethal drugs.
    Diaz, 55, was executed Wednesday for the 1979 murder of the manager of a Miami topless bar.
    Seconds after the chemicals began flowing, Diaz looked up, blinked several times and appeared to be mouthing words. A minute later, he began grimacing.
    He appeared to move for 24 minutes after the first injection, at one point looking toward witnesses and another time licking his lips and blowing. He was given a second dose of the chemicals at some point before he died.
    Gov. Jeb Bush asked Corrections Secretary James McDonough to undertake a thorough review of the execution, including an autopsy and interviews with those in the death chamber. Bush noted ‘‘the unusual length of time it took for the process to complete.’’
    Republican Gov.-elect Charlie Crist also had questions about the procedure.
    ‘‘You wonder about the dosage and if there may have been some better medical diagnoses done prior to that,’’ Crist said.
    Norma Otero Diaz, a cousin in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, said Diaz was healthy and recently offered to donate a kidney to her ill son.
    Paul Doering, a University of Florida pharmacy professor who is familiar with the lethal injection chemicals, said even if Diaz had a diseased liver, it would not have made any difference on how the drugs worked.
    ‘‘This explanation doesn’t make a bit of sense,’’ Doering said. ‘‘It is the greatest fairy tale since Cinderella.’’
    Diaz’ attorney filed a lawsuit Thursday on behalf of death row inmates, asking the Florida Supreme Court to rule that the state’s lethal injection procedure is unconstitutional.
    Diaz proclaimed his innocence to the end.
    ‘‘The death penalty is not only a form of vengeance, but also a cowardly act by humans,’’ he said while strapped to a gurney. ‘‘I’m sorry for what is happening to me and my family who have been put through this.’’
    Maria Magdalena Otero, another cousin of the executed man, said the family tried to stop a state autopsy to obtain independent evidence that Diaz had no liver condition. But the procedure was completed before relatives arrived.
    ‘‘They have violated our rights and those of Angel’s, who had 34 minutes of suffering,’’ she said in a telephone interview.
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Laura Candelas in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this story.

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