Florida risks return to botched executions as expert warns of ‘burning pain’

August 8, 2011

The rejection by a Florida judge of an appeal against the use of a new and untested execution drug could see a return to botched executions in the state, according to evidence from experts in the US. Florida is seeking to carry out its first execution using pentobarbital, a new drug which has recently been involved in several badly botched lethal injections across the US. Earlier this year, Georgia’s first lethal injection using pentobarbital went so badly wrong that the state took the rare step of videotaping a subsequent execution to provide evidence on whether the process broke restrictions on ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Florida’s adoption of this new drug could provide a grim reminder of the execution of Angel Diaz, who took over half an hour to die following a botched lethal injection in 2006, leading then-Governor Jeb Bush to declare a moratorium. Last week, the Florida circuit court heard from a Harvard anaesthesiologist who stated that, for the purposes of anaesthesia, “almost nothing” was known about pentobarbital, and that should the drug fail to work, prisoners would suffer “incredibly burning pain” from the subsequent injection of a heart-stopping drug. Dr David Waisel also testified that Roy Willard Blankenship, the first person executed in Georgia using pentobarbital, “suffered an extremely painful execution.” Despite this, Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola ruled that the onus was on the defense to prove a substantial risk of serious harm, and they had not done so. In making her order, Judge Scola sided with the prosecution, one of whose witnesses – a Georgia corrections official – had argued that Mr Blankenship’s pentobarbital execution was “relatively non-eventful,” despite eyewitness accounts describing “jerking”, “thrashing”, and the prisoner’s eyes remaining open until death. The case will now proceed to the Florida Supreme Court, with lawyers for Cuban national Manuel Valle, who faces execution using pentobarbital in early September, expected to file later this week. Reprieve investigator Katherine Bekesi said: “It is disgraceful that it is being left up to the defense to prove that this drug is likely to cause extreme suffering. It is the state’s responsibility to prove that it will not cause pain, yet they have not even managed this. “There is a real risk that the execution of Manuel Valle could cement Florida’s unwelcome reputation for botched executions. “Should this new, untested drug be used, Mr Valle may well suffer severe pain, in breach of both state and federal laws against cruel and unusual punishment. “It has to be hoped that the Florida Supreme Court will give this issue more careful consideration than it received from the circuit court before there is another unnecessary and tortuous killing by the State of Florida.”ENDS Notes to editorsFor more information please contact Donald Campbell or Katherine O’Shea at Reprieve’s Press Office: donald.campbell@reprieve.org.uk / +44 (0) 20 7427 1082 / (0) 7791 755 415 / katherine.oshea@reprieve.org.uk / +44 (0) 20 7427 1099 / (0) 7931 592 674. Manuel Valle is a Cuban national with Spanish links, who has now been on death row for 33 years. He has been denied proper clemency proceedings, and (similarly to the recent case of Humberto Leal in Texas) did not receive the consular assistance to which he was entitled. His execution has been stayed until September 1st to allow a full hearing on the matter to take place. An eyewitness from the Associated Press has described the “thrashing, jerking death of Roy Willard Blankenship” using pentobarbital, during which “his eyes never closed”. The full text of Dr David Waisel’s affidavit on Roy Blankenship’s inadequate anaesthesia can be found on Reprieve’s website. Despite these accounts of a “clearly botched” execution, “John Harper, an employee of the Georgia Department of Corrections, described the June 23 execution in that state of Roy Blankenship […] as relatively non-eventful.” – see ‘Lethal injection drug hearing to continue next week’, Miami Herald, 28 July 2011