MIAMI — A hearing that began Thursday morning on the use of a new anesthetic drug in Florida's lethal injections will continue next week, after a Miami judge said that scientists for both sides should testify in person or via video conference.
The hearing stems from the case of Manuel Valle, sentenced to death for shooting and killing Coral Gables police Officer Louis Pena in 1978. Valle's execution, initially set for Aug. 2, was stayed by the Florida Supreme Court on Monday until Sept. 1, pending a hearing on the safety and efficacy of the drug in question, pentobarbital.
The defense's expert witness on the drug was unable to be in Miami before this coming Tuesday. The prosecution's expert could have testified by phone Thursday, but Circuit Court Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola said she would be more comfortable seeing the witness's face by video to establish his credibility. That expert will testify Tuesday, too.
A quiet but alert Valle, 61, appeared in court Thursday, handcuffed, carrying a bulky file and wearing orange-and-blue prison garb and thick glasses that slid down his nose.
He turned occasionally to look at family members seated in the courtroom and spoke only halfway through the proceedings, when his lawyer told the judge Valle preferred to go back to Florida State Prison in Starke than to sit through the remainder of the hearing.
"Do you want to go now, or wait until the end of the day?" the judge asked him.
"It doesn't matter," Valle said, turning to the gaggle of corrections officers sitting behind him. "If you guys want to go …"
That prompted laughter from the judge, lawyers and observers in the courtroom, and a smile from Valle, who was allowed to go.
"Thank you, your honor," he said.
On Tuesday, the judge listened to testimony — by phone and in person — from people who have witnessed lethal-injection executions using pentobarbital in other states.
Valle would be the first Florida inmate to be executed with the drug. His defense has raised questions as to whether the drug in the amount prescribed by the state could cause him pain and constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Testifying for the defense, a federal public defender, described the June 16 execution in Alabama of Eddie Duval Powell. The witness, Matt Schulz, said by phone that Powell jerked up, clenched his jaw and looked confused for about a minute before passing out.
On the other side, John Harper, an employee of the Georgia Corrections Department, described the June 23 execution in that state of Roy Blankenship — expected to come up when the defense's expert takes the stand next week — as relatively non-eventful.
The Florida Corrections Department signed off last month on using pentobarbital, a barbiturate, to sedate inmates before a second drug paralyzes them and a third stops their hearts.
The state had to switch sedatives after the Illinois pharmaceutical company that sold it the previous drug, sodium thiopental, discontinued production because it did not want the drug used in executions.