Saturday, December 16, 2006

Opinion: Is the death penalty, as it is currently administered, a violation of constitutional provisions against cruel and unusual punishment?

OCALA, Florida (AP) -- Gov. Jeb Bush suspended executions in Florida after a medical examiner said Friday that prison officials botched the insertion of the needles when a convicted killer was put to death earlier this week.

Separately, a federal judge in California imposed a moratorium on executions in the nation's most populous state, declaring that the state's method of lethal injection runs the risk of violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled in San Jose that California's "implementation of lethal injection is broken." But he said: "It can be fixed."

Fogel said the case raised the question of whether a three-drug cocktail administered by the San Quentin State Prison is so painful that it "offends" the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Fogel said he was compelled "to answer that question in the affirmative."

California has been under a capital punishment moratorium since February, when Fogel called off the execution of rapist and murderer Michael Morales amid concerns that condemned inmates might suffer excruciating deaths.

Fogel found substantial evidence that the last six men executed at San Quentin might have been conscious and still breathing when lethal drugs were administered. He ordered anesthesiologists to be on hand, or demanded that a licensed medical professional inject a large, fatal dose of a sedative instead of the additional paralyzing agent and heart-stopping drugs that are normally used. But no medical professional was willing to participate.

In Florida, medical examiner Dr. William Hamilton said Wednesday's execution of Angel Nieves Diaz took 34 minutes -- twice as long as usual -- and required a rare second dose of lethal chemicals because the needles were inserted clear through his veins and into the flesh in his arms. The chemicals are supposed to go into the veins. Hamilton, who performed the autopsy, refused to say whether he thought Diaz died a painful death.

"I am going to defer answers about pain and suffering until the autopsy is complete," he said. He said the results were preliminary and other tests may take several weeks.

Missing a vein when administering the injections would cause "both psychological and physical discomfort -- probably pretty severe," said Dr. J. Kent Garman, an emeritus professor of anesthesia at the Stanford School of Medicine in California. "All the drugs would be much slower to affect the body because they're not going into a blood vessel. They're going under the skin. They take a long time to be absorbed by the body," said Garman. He said he was ethically opposed to lethal injection.

An inmate would remain conscious for a longer period of time and would likely be aware of increased difficulty breathing and pain caused by angina, the interruption of blood flow to the heart, he said. Jonathan Groner, associate professor of surgery at Ohio State University, said the injection would cause excruciating pain "like your arms are on fire."

Bush created a commission to examine the state's lethal injection process in light of Diaz's case, and he halted the signing of any more death warrants until the panel completes its final report by March 1. The governor said he wants to ensure the process does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, as some death penalty foes argued bitterly after Diaz's execution. Florida has 374 people on death row; it has carried out four executions this year.

Diaz, 55, was put to death for murdering the manager of a Miami topless bar during a holdup in 1979. The medical examiner's findings contradicted the explanation given by prison officials, who said Diaz needed the second dose because liver disease caused him to metabolize the lethal drugs more slowly. Hamilton said that although there were records that Diaz had hepatitis, his liver appeared normal. Executions in Florida normally take no more than about 15 minutes, with the inmate rendered unconscious and motionless within three to five minutes. But Diaz appeared to be moving 24 minutes after the first injection, grimacing, blinking, licking his lips, blowing and appearing to mouth words.

As a result of the chemicals going into Diaz's arms around the elbow, he had a 12-inch chemical burn on his right arm and an 11-inch chemical burn on his left arm, Hamilton said. Florida Corrections Secretary James McDonough said the execution team did not see any swelling of the arms, which would have been an indication that the chemicals were going into tissues and not veins. Diaz's attorney, Suzanne Myers Keffler, reacted angrily to the findings. "This is complete negligence on the part of the state," she said. "When he was still moving after the first shot of chemicals, they should have known there was a problem and they shouldn't have continued. This shows a complete disregard for Mr. Diaz. This is disgusting." Earlier, in a court hearing in Ocala, she had won an assurance from the attorney general's office that she could have access to all findings and evidence from the autopsy. She withdrew a request for an independent autopsy.
David Elliot, spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said experts his group had contacted suspected that liver disease was not the explanation for the problem.
"Florida has certainly deservedly earned a reputation for being a state that conducts botched executions, whether its electrocution or lethal injection," Elliot said. "We just think the Florida death penalty system is broken from start to finish."

Florida got rid of the electric chair after two inmates' heads caught fire during executions in the 1990s and another suffered a severe nosebleed in 2000. Lethal injection was portrayed as a more humane and more reliable process. Twenty people have been executed by injection in Florida since the state switched from the electric chair in 2000. Lethal injection is the preferred execution method in 37 states.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Opinion: Do you agree with the reported conclusions/decisions of the Iraq Study Group?

Iraq Panel to Urge Pullout Of Combat Troops by '08
By Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers Friday, December 1, 2006; Page A01

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group plans to recommend withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat units from Iraq by early 2008 while leaving behind troops to train, advise and support the Iraqis, setting the first goal for a major drawdown of U.S. forces, sources familiar with the proposal said yesterday.

The commission plan would shift the U.S. mission in Iraq to a secondary role as the fragile Baghdad government and its security forces take the lead in fighting a Sunni insurgency and trying to halt sectarian violence. As part of major changes in the U.S. presence, sources said, the plan recommends embedding U.S. soldiers directly in Iraqi security units starting as early as next month to improve leadership and effectiveness.

The call to pull out combat brigades by early 2008 would be more a conditional goal than a firm timetable, predicated on the assumption that circumstances on the ground would permit it, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the commission's report will not be released until next week. But panel members concluded that it is vital to set a target to put pressure on Iraqi leaders to do more to assume responsibility for the security of their country.

"It's really about transitioning from a combat to a support role, and basically making very clear that this is no longer an open-ended commitment and we're going to get this done whether the Iraqis like it or not," said one of the sources. "Everybody understands that we're at the end of the road here."

The choice of early 2008 as a goal could also, intentionally or not, change the nature of the debate over the war at the height of the U.S. presidential primary season. If the commission's plan is successful, the war might recede as an issue, as many strategists in both parties hope. But if U.S. commanders do not meet that goal, or if they do but violence only escalates, it may inflame the struggles for both parties' nominations.

Democrats, who captured control of both houses of Congress in last month's midterm elections, and some Republicans have pushed strongly for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. But President Bush has firmly resisted such demands, warning that it would amount to surrender and could destabilize Iraq even further.

At a news conference yesterday after a summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan, Bush seemed to douse the idea of withdrawal in response to news reports about the Iraqi Study Group's recommendations. "This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever," Bush said.

But aides later cautioned against interpreting that as opposition to any change in the U.S. troop posture. "That's not the case," said one senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "His position is he's not entering this process with defeat on his mind" for the sole purpose of getting out, the official said.