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Claims of faulty injection disputed

Expert: Needles tore inmate's veins after execution, not during.

By CHRIS TISCH
Published February 20, 2007


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TAMPA - A medical professional who oversaw the prolonged execution of Angel Diaz said Monday that needles did not pierce through the condemned inmate's veins during the execution, contradicting the testimony of several doctors.

The man, who testified before a commission studying the state's lethal injection procedures, kept his identity a secret. A machine disguised his voice as he spoke over a telephone. He refused to answer detailed questions about his qualifications, other than to say he had participated in more than 80 executions in five states.

Several doctors - including the one who performed Diaz's autopsy - have testified that plastic needles tore through his veins near the start of the execution, spraying chemicals into his flesh rather than injecting them into his bloodstream.

But the medical professional who testified Monday said the needles were inserted properly. They tore through the veins as Diaz's body was moved afterward, he said.

"At no time was there evidence of an IV infiltration," he said.

He also told the commission: "An execution has nothing remotely to do with medicine. ... The condemned inmate will not leave the chamber alive."

Commission member David Varlotta, a Tampa anesthesiologist, said the man who testified is violating medical codes that keep medical professionals from getting involved in executions, which makes Varlotta suspicious of everything about him.

"I call into question the individual who's willing to step outside the ethical guidelines of their profession," Varlotta said.

The 11-member commission was created by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to study the state's lethal injection procedures after Diaz's Dec. 13 execution.

A painful death?

Diaz, who was condemned for a 1979 murder in Miami, took 34 minutes, about twice as long as normal, to die. Though some witnesses have said he appeared to be in pain, Corrections Department officials have said he did not appear to suffer.

Whether Diaz suffered is important because the Constitution forbids the government from inflicting unnecessary pain or suffering on prisoners.

Florida's executions are on hold while the issue is reviewed by the commission, which is scheduled to make recommendations by March 1. The panel will hold what should be its last meeting Saturday in Tampa.

Florida uses a three-drug cocktail in executions: a powerful sedative, a paralyzing drug and a drug to cause a fatal heart attack.

Testimony from doctors had seemed to establish that a needle quickly tore through Diaz's vein as the execution began, flushing all of the first chemical and some of the second chemical into his flesh, where it was absorbed into the bloodstream very slowly - delaying its effect.

Rather than checking Diaz's arm and fixing the problem as state protocol requires, the medical staff told the executioner to deploy the rest of the second drug and the third drug into Diaz's other arm.

This baffled some doctors because the third drug causes a terrible burning sensation. And without the protection of the first drug, Diaz would have felt the suffocation of paralysis followed by severe burning.

But the needle tore through the vein in that arm, too.

Commissioners asked the man who testified Monday: If the needles didn't tear through the veins, why would the execution have taken so long?

"I think that would be speculation," he told them.

New protocol

Also on Monday, the commission heard testimony from Corrections Secretary James McDonough, who said execution procedures were handed down by word of mouth before he became secretary a year ago.

He decided to create the current written protocol, which became public in August.

McDonough said he's willing to incorporate any changes the commission suggests, as long as they are within the law.

But he said the execution team still may have to make quick decisions.

"What you can't put in the protocol is every contingency," McDonough told reporters after his testimony. "That's why you have leadership on the ground."

[Last modified February 20, 2007, 06:09:21]


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