The End of Lethal Injection?

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Florida death row inmate Angel Nieves Diaz was pronounced dead at 6:36 pm on Wednesday evening — 34 minutes after the first needle carrying the standard lethal injection chemicals designed to kill him was inserted into his arm. The procedure took twice as long as usual and required a rare double dose of the toxic cocktail. The needles, which were supposed to be inserted directly into Diaz’s veins, tore through his veins and went into the inner tissue of his arms. One reporter who witnessed the execution observed Diaz shuddering, licking his lips, blowing, and grimacing as he lay strapped onto the gurney. In the end, his lifeless body was marred with two grisly reminders of the ordeal — 12 and 11 inch burns on his arms.

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Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has overseen over 20 executions while presiding over the state that ranks fifth highest in number of people killed, responded to Diaz’s bungled execution by calling for a moratorium on all executions in Florida until a commission is able to report its findings on March 1. And it’s about time. This isn’t the first botched execution in Florida’s history — two inmates’ heads caught fire while being put to death in the electric chair in the 1990’s. It also isn’t the first time that an execution has lasted longer than it should. It took Crips founder-turned-Nobel Peace Prize nominee Tookie Williams 36 minutes to die in December of 2005. You can learn more about his execution, and the vigils and demonstrations that accompanied it, here.

Jeb Bush’s decision is just one of the recent developments in the debate over lethal injection, which intensified in February when the execution of California inmate Michael Morales was put on hold pending further investigation into whether the condemned suffer unconstitutionally painful deaths. Also today, in a move that is arguably more monumental than Florida’s moratorium, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled in the Morales case that California’s method of lethal injection is unconstitutional because it classifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

So is this the end of lethal injection in the United States? Ty Alper, visiting professor at UC Berkeley Boalt Law School’s death penalty clinic, called today’s events “indications of the further scrutiny that lethal injection is getting nationwide.” He said, “No longer can we continue to pretend that lethal injection is painless and humane. In fact, to the contrary, it now appears that we have been torturing at least some inmates as we put them to death. At this point, we can hope that officials in both states will take these events seriously and either come up with a way to execute people humanely or abandon the enterprise altogether.”

History lesson: Lethal injection was first adopted by the state of Oklahoma after local legislator Bill Wiseman introduced it as an alternative to electrocution. Thirty-seven of the 38 death-penalty states now use it as their main method of execution. Courtesy of Mother Jones, you can read or listen to why Bill Wiseman regrets promoting lethal injection and is now an Episcopal priest who advocates against the death penalty.

— Celia Perry

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