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ISSUE 121 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 11/2/2007

Executions resuscitate debate

By Lauren Doney
Contributing Writer

Friday, November 2, 2007

Last December, I opened up my local newspaper, The Orlando Sentinel, to find a disturbing story about the botched execution of Angel Nieves Diaz.

Diaz was convicted of robbing and murdering a car salesman. The police didn't have an eyewitness account of the actual shooting, but instead relied heavily on Diaz's girlfriend's claim that he had confessed to her that he murdered the salesman.

What I read about his execution, it sent chills down my spine and made eating my bagel nearly impossible.

Florida, like dozens of other states, administers a lethal combination of three drugs to convicted inmates on death row. The drugs sedate, paralyze and then stop the heart.

The entire process is intended to last at most 15 minutes (the actual injection should last between 3-5 minutes).

However, in Diaz's case, the process droned on for more than 25 minutes. The drug administrator shot the initial dose of Pentothol past the vein, making it almost impossible for the body to absorb the injection.

Witnesses reported that Diaz convulsed for 20 minutes, expressing excruciating pain.

This upsetting incident led Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, to halt all scheduled executions to further investigate. Ten other states eventually followed suit. Today, lethal injection is again making headlines. On Sept. 25, 2007 the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of two death row inmates who claim that the method violates their Eigth Amendment rights.

The case has sparked a chain of events and debates with 16 states suspending lethal injection executions as of last week. The unofficial moratorium will hold widespread effects. In 2006 alone, there were 53 executions. All but one was done through means of lethal injection.

Viewed by many Americans as a humane and just form of capital punishment, lethal injection has a history of flawed executions. In most defective cases, the problem seems to rise from failing to find a suitable vein into which the catheter may be inserted.

In 1985, it took technicians 45 minutes and prolonged probing of both the arms and the legs of an inmate to find a satisfactory vein.

In a particularly ironic and upsetting twist, many prisoners have had to help the "trained" staff member find a vein.

Though the Supreme Court case will undoubtedly influence the method of execution used by states in the future, the court will not debate lethal injection's shaky future.

In fact, a court representative said that when they took the case, the court had not intended for a nationwide cessation of the method. Nonetheless, the case has sparked long-running debates between human rights advocates and those who support the death penalty.

Faulty cases such as Diaz's fuel discomfort over capital punishment in general. Many are uncomfortable with the possibility of substandard lethal injection administration.

However, supporters of the death penalty cite the rarity of these circumstances and the fact that U.S. prisons are already overflowing with criminals.

Supporters note, when done correctly and efficiently, lethal injection is in fact humane.

In addition, if the death penalty is eliminated entirely, or even inhibited, the overcrowding of many facilities will become unmanageable.

Take for instance, Timothy McVeigh, the man charged with the Oklahoma City bombing. His injections began at 8:10 a.m. and by 8:14 a.m. he was pronounced dead. There were no complications and no noticeable pain.

Clearly, lethal injection is an imperfect science, and I fervently believe that more research and resources are necessary to improve the process.

But when we consider the execution procedures of our ancestors (death by fire squads, beheading and gas chambers) and the methods of countries far less developed than ours (stoning and hangings), lethal injection appears (when carried out properly) to be a suitable solution.

Who knows, as the Supreme Court begins reviewing the case of the two Kentucky men and suspension of executions continues, perhaps those qualified to improve the system will take notice.

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