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Florida execution can move forward, court rules

The new use of a drug in the state's lethal injections is constitutional, the Florida Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in the case of a man set to be executed next week for shooting and killing a Coral Gables police officer more than three decades ago.

Manuel Valle, 61, is scheduled to be executed on Sept. 1 for fatally hooting Officer Louis Pena in 1978.

His execution, originally scheduled for Aug. 2, had been temporarily delayed by the state's high court to conduct a hearing about the safety and efficacy of pentobarbital, a barbiturate, in the three-drug lethal injection. On Tuesday, the court lifted that stay, allowing the execution to proceed.

Valle would be the first Florida inmate to be executed using pentobarbital. Florida switched its drug protocol in June, after production of the anesthetic sodium thiopental was discontinued.

Pentobarbital is intended to knock out inmates before a second drug paralyzes them and a third stops their heart.

Valle's lawyers had argued that the use of pentobarbital could constitute cruel and unusual punishment because the barbiturate has not been extensively studied as an anesthetic. If it doesn't work, they said, Valle could feel excruciating pain after being injected with the second and third drugs.

But Supreme Court justices agreed with a Miami-Dade judge who rejected Valle's argument earlier this month.

"By asserting that no evidence exists concerning whether pentobarbital will render an inmate unconscious, Valle has failed to meet his burden of proof," the court ruled in its unanimous decision.

An anesthesiologist for the prosecution had testified in the Miami-Dade hearing that the dosage of pentobarbital used in the lethal injection — five grams — could be enough on its own to kill a person.

In a statement, Attorney General Pam Bondi praised the court's decision.

"With the stay lifted, justice for this cold-blooded killer who gunned down a police officer can now be served," she said.

Separately on Tuesday, the bishops of the Florida Catholic Conference released a letter they sent Gov. Rick Scott earlier this month urging him to spare Valle's life.

"Killing someone because they killed diminishes respect for life and promotes a culture of violence and vengeance," the bishops wrote in an Aug. 3 letter signed, among others, by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski.

For years, the family of the slain cop, Pena, has written Florida governors asking them to execute Valle. Pena's family attended the Miami-Dade hearing and planned to go to the execution at Florida State Prison in Starke. Valle has spent 33 years on Death Row, amid retrials, hearings and appeals.

Scott has described the decision of signing his first death warrant as difficult.

"It's not something that I cherish," he told the Miami Herald's editorial board two weeks ago. "But it's the right thing to do."

Florida execution can move forward, court rules 08/23/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 6:00pm]
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