STARKE — Much will be at stake when the curtains part on Florida's death chamber at Florida State Prison this evening. It will be one of the most important days in the history of the state's ultimate punishment.
Pending an unlikely 11th-hour stay, Mark Dean Schwab will be strapped to a gurney to face a 6 p.m. death by lethal injection. Schwab, 39, is condemned for abducting, raping and killing an 11-year-old boy in Cocoa, a small town on Florida's east coast.
If Schwab's death appears peaceful, executions in Florida could rev up for the first time in two years. But if anything goes wrong, the state's death penalty system will be in turmoil — again.
Florida's death penalty has been at a standstill since the Dec. 13, 2006, execution of Angel Diaz. Corrections officials mistakenly poked needles through Diaz's veins and chemicals sprayed into his flesh. His death took twice as long as normal and appeared painful to some observers.
Then-Gov. Jeb Bush halted all executions and convened a panel to study procedures. Several changes were made, but executions were delayed again when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a challenge to lethal injection protocols in Kentucky.
The high court in April upheld Kentucky's procedures as constitutional. Without a stay, Schwab's execution will be the 10th in the nation since that decision.
Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday said he would like to see executions accelerate.
"There's an old adage in law that justice delayed is justice denied, and I believe that," Crist said. "I'm very sympathetic to the family members of those who have had members of their family taken from us — murdered."
Bush also had hoped to speed up executions. And though he oversaw more executions than any Florida governor in modern death penalty history, executions still couldn't outpace the number of people sentenced to death row during his tenure.
Since 2005, for instance, only five inmates have been executed while 59 people have been sentenced to death row — 31 alone since Diaz's botched execution.
Florida, which has averaged only about two executions per year since 1979, currently houses 388 people on death row. At that rate, a vast majority will die in prison of old age.
"It's going to be very hard to catch up," said Charles Rose, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law.
Though it appears it's clear sailing for the death penalty, the state has had numerous problems with executions, including inmates burning or bleeding in the electric chair. Florida adopted lethal injection to assuage constitutional concerns about cruelty, but that method has had problems, too.
Death penalty defense lawyers say a three-drug cocktail used to execute inmates can cause pain and suffering banned by the Constitution. A sedative provided to put the inmate to sleep can wear off too fast, they say, causing inmates to feel an excruciating burning sensation when the third chemical is injected.
In addition, they say, corrections staffers are not properly trained to do lethal injections.
But corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said medical professionals are involved in the process. She said the execution team has been practicing and has adopted changes recommended by the commission that studied the protocols. This includes a provision that a warden ensure Schwab is unconscious before a fatal chemical is injected.
"Our goal is a humane and dignified death," Plessinger said.
Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said he thinks opposition to executions has coalesced since the Diaz debacle. He said vigils are planned in a dozen Florida cities today, more than in past executions.
"There seems to be more interest and dissatisfaction with what's happened in Florida," he said.
Rose, the Stetson professor, said death penalty advocates also will be keeping a close eye on Florida today.
"They're going to watch this very closely to see if it's going to work," he said. If it does, "then I think it's back to business as usual until there's another problem."
Schwab, 39, was released early from prison in 1991 after serving time for raping a 13-year-old boy at knifepoint. Only about a month later, Schwab saw a photo of Junny Rios-Martinez in a local newspaper. The 11-year-old boy had won a kite-flying contest.
Schwab posed as a newspaper reporter interested in helping Junny become a professional surfer. He met with the boy and his family, then called Junny's school posing as his father and setting up a meeting with the boy at a ball field.
Schwab abducted, raped and murdered Junny. He fled to Ohio but was caught days later and led authorities to the body, which he had put in a footlocker and hidden in a remote palmetto thicket.
Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.