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In eight minutes, execution complete

Florida's first lethal injection seems to go off with no problems and likely will be followed by another one today.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2000


STARKE -- At 7:01 a.m., the warden nodded. Unseen, a black-hooded executioner pushed down on a syringe plunger and the chemicals started to flow. The man strapped to the gurney began to talk. Then his jaw slackened and he moved no more. At 7:10 a.m., he was pronounced dead.

With that, convicted killer Terry Melvin Sims antiseptically passed into history Wednesday, the first Florida man to be executed by lethal injection.

Sims received a fatal dose of chemicals designed to render him unconscious, cause paralysis and then induce a massive coronary. A heart monitor flatlined eight minutes after the warden's nod, according to Department of Corrections officials, but Sims died without so much as a twitch.

Barring any last-minute stays, a second death row inmate will meet the same fate today.

Sims' execution ushers in a new era in Florida's sometimes gruesome history of capital punishment.

For 76 years, the state executed the condemned in an electric chair known as "Old Sparky." But after a string of executions punctuated by blood, smoke and fire, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in October to hear arguments that the chair was unconstitutional. To avoid a legal showdown with the justices in Washington, lawmakers last month reluctantly voted to offer inmates a choice of lethal injection. That cleared the way for executions to resume.

Sims, 58, was sentenced to death for the 1977 murder of George Pfeil, an off-duty volunteer deputy with the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. Pfeil was fatally shot after he walked in on a drugstore robbery in the Central Florida town of Longwood. He was there to fill a prescription for his wife.

Sims spent his final hours praying with a rabbi, refusing a Valium to calm his nerves. As he lay strapped to a gurney, intravenous needles inserted into each of his bound arms, he proclaimed his innocence in a final death chamber statement.

"I'm not guilty of this charge of murder," said the slight, bespectacled Sims. "I stand before my God."

Sims then began to pray in Hebrew, ending with "peace, happiness and love to all." At 7:01 a.m., Florida State Prison Warden James Crosby nodded to an anonymous executioner hidden behind a one-way mirror.

The chemicals began flowing through clear tubing that snaked from Sims' arms through a hole in the wall separating the death chamber from the executioner's unseen perch.

Sims spoke again at 7:02 a.m., but his words were unintelligible: The microphone that piped his final statement into the witness room had been shut off. His lips parted slightly. By 7:03, with none of the hand-clenching or slumping that accompanied the high-voltage executions, Sims was motionless.

In what officials said was a signal that Sims' heartbeat no longer registered on an out-of-sight monitor, a white-coated physician's assistant stepped from behind a curtain at 7:09 a.m. He placed a stethoscope against Sims' chest. Then a doctor pronounced Sims dead at 7:10 a.m.

"It was a textbook procedure," said Department of Corrections spokesman C.J. Drake. "The execution was administered in a thoroughly professional, humane and dignified manner and went off without a hitch."

Pfeil's family did not attend Wednesday's execution. But Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger, who took office shortly after Pfeil was murdered and remembers the bloody crime scene photos, did.

Eslinger called the disparity between the Pfeil's violent murder and Sims' uneventful execution "kind of ironic." But he said he does not care that Sims did not die in the chair.

"I don't care about the peacefulness, how benign, how clinical the process," Eslinger said. "The finality of the sentence is what's important to the community."

About 50 anti-death penalty protesters marched in a field outside the North Florida prison early Wednesday. They included the family of Anthony Bryan, who is set to die today for the 1983 murder of George Wilson, a Mississippi night watchman. Bryan kidnapped Wilson, took him to Santa Rosa County in the Florida Panhandle and shot him in the face.

Like Eslinger, Bryan's son doesn't see much difference between dying in a chair or by the needle.

"It doesn't make it easier at all," said Bradley Bryan, 16, fighting back tears. "They say, "Oh, it's okay, it's just a little prick.' No, that's not true."

Some of the difference between electrocution and lethal injection are minor. Traditionally, inmates eat a last meal shortly before their death. But because the mixture of food and chemicals could cause vomiting, Sims was served 12 hours in advance. He shared some of his Boston creme pie with guards and Bryan.

Perhaps the biggest change is that many of the mechanics of carrying out death sentences now take place out of view of the media and official witnesses.

In the past, witnesses looked on as an inmate was led into the death chamber and strapped to the electric chair. Body movements made it clear when the electric jolts began and ended. When something went wrong, there was a paper trail to follow: A machine recorded the voltage.

Gone Wednesday was the leather and metal hood that used to be fitted on freshly shorn heads, the better to conduct electricity. Gone was the black cloth that draped the faces of the condemned. Gone, too, was much of the ability to monitor how the Department of Corrections carries out executions.

Sims was strapped to the gurney in a room behind the death chamber. The only outside witness to see a medical technician insert the intravenous lines into Sims' arms was a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent. The agent will not write a report or share observations unless compelled to do so in court, Drake said.

Officials pulled a curtain separating the witness room from the death chamber only after Sims was in place. Though Sims' face was visible, a sheet was pulled to his neck.

Because the syringes also were hidden from view, it was impossible to verify whether the chemicals were administered in the proper order. Recently compelled to disclose that order in court, department officials testified that inmates would be injected first with sodium pentothal, an anesthetic commonly used in surgery but administered in a strong enough dose to kill, followed by a paralyzing dose of a muscle relaxant that slows breathing to a crawl. Finally, the executioner is to administer potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

The department also chose not to print the readout from the heart monitor.

Drake said some of the secrecy is out of concern for the dignity of the inmate. But there may be another factor at work. Without paperwork and witnesses, it is difficult to make the case that the department is administering lethal injection in an unconstitutionally cruel and unusual manner, an argument that delayed electric chair executions.

"The Department of Corrections does not have a stellar reputation when they implement the death penalty," said Gregory Smith, a lawyer representing Bryan. "They are administering this drug that paralyzes, so if something does go wrong, the person could not demonstrate that they are in distress."

Sims was the 45th Florida inmate to be executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. He is also the first to be executed since Allen "Tiny" Davis was put to death in the electric chair last July. Davis died with blood pouring from his nose in a spectacle that led the nation's high court to threaten its review.

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