The Florida Supreme Court on Monday temporarily stayed the execution of Manuel Valle, who shot and killed a South Florida police officer 33 years ago, pending a hearing over the state's new use of a drug in its lethal injections.
Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant — his first — on June 30 setting Valle's execution for Aug. 2. On Monday, the state's high court delayed the execution until Sept. 1 and ordered a hearing on Florida's recent switch from one anesthetic to another as part of its cocktail of three lethal drugs.
Valle had appealed the death warrant on several grounds, including the use of pentobarbital, a barbiturate intended to knock condemned inmates unconscious so they feel no pain. A second drug paralyzes them and a third stops their heart.
On June 8, the Florida Department of Corrections approved the use of pentobarbital as a substitute for sodium thiopental, the barbiturate the state had previously been using. Earlier this year, the Illinois pharmaceutical company that sold the state sodium thiopental discontinued its production of the drug.
Valle, who would be the first inmate executed under the new drug protocol, raised questions about whether the use of pentobarbital in the amount prescribed by the state could cause him to suffer pain.
The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Valle's claim merits a hearing, and ordered it take place in Miami by Aug. 5, with oral arguments, if necessary, on Aug. 24.
The corrections department must also provide the court with any correspondence and documents from the pentobarbital manufacturer on the safety and efficacy of the drug.
The execution stay is the latest legal wrinkle in the decades-old case of Valle, now 61, who shot and killed Coral Gables Officer Louis Pena on April 2, 1978, after Pena pulled him over in a routine traffic stop.
"We're disappointed," said Jeneane Skeen, one of Pena's daughters, who was 13 when her father was killed and who planned to attend the execution with a large group of family members. "It's ridiculous. The legality of the lethal injection — how legal was it for him to have my dad drown in his own blood?"
Valle was first sentenced to death 24 days after his arrest — a turnaround so quick that the Florida Supreme Court ordered a retrial. Valle was later sentenced to death two more times, amid appeals, reversals and re-hearings that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Valle shot and killed Pena after being pulled over and detained for running a red light. The car was stolen, but the officer did not know that because the county's computer used to check tags was down that day.
Pena was about to let Valle go when Valle asked if he could go back to the stolen brown Camaro to get a cigarette. Pena said yes. Valle came back with a gun.
He shot Pena in the neck. He also shot Officer Gary Spell , who had been called for backup, in the back. Spell, who witnessed Pena's shooting, was saved by a bullet-resistant vest.
Valle fled with Felix Ruiz , an accomplice who was in the stolen car. They were arrested two days later in Deerfield Beach.