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Court to hear arguments over death penalty drug

A Miami judge will hear arguments Thursday morning for and against the new use of an anesthetic drug in Florida's lethal injections.

The hearing stems from the case of Manuel Valle, sentenced to death for shooting and killing a Coral Gables police officer in 1978. Valle's execution, initially scheduled for Aug. 2, was temporarily stayed on Monday until Sept. 1, pending a hearing on the safety and efficacy of the drug, pentobarbital.

The hearing will be held at 10 a.m. before Circuit Court Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola .

The Florida Department of Corrections signed off last month on using pentobarbital, a barbiturate, as part of the state's cocktail of three lethal drugs. The pentobarbital is intended to knock condemned inmates unconscious before a second drug paralyzes them and a third stops their heart.

The state previously used sodium thiopental, a different barbiturate, to sedate the inmates. The corrections department had to change its protocol after the Illinois pharmaceutical company that sold it the sodium thiopental discontinued its production of the drug earlier this year. The company did not want the drug to be used in executions.

Other states have since made the switch to pentobarbital, which is used to euthanize animals. But Valle would be the first Florida inmate to be executed under the new rules, and he raised questions about whether the drug in the amount prescribed by the state could cause him to suffer pain.

A divided Florida Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to grant him a hearing — and ordered the corrections department to provide documents from the drug's manufacturer, Lundbeck, on the safety and efficacy of pentobarbital.

The head of Lundbeck, a Danish company, has twice written Gov. Rick Scott urging him not to use the drug for capital punishment. Staffan Schüberg , president of Lundbeck, wrote to Scott in May and again in June after he said his letters to the corrections department went unanswered. It is unclear if Scott's office has responded, either.

"The use of pentobarbital outside the approved labeling has not been established," Schüberg wrote. "As such, Lundbeck cannot assure the associated safety and efficacy profiles in such instances. For this reason, we are concerned about its use in prison executions."

Amid appeals, reversals and re-hearings, Valle, 61, has been sentenced to death three times for killing Gables Officer Louis Pena after the officer pulled him over for running a red light.

Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.

Court to hear arguments over death penalty drug 07/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 28, 2011 9:26am]
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