Manuel Valle to be executed Wednesday for killing Officer Louis Pena

MIAMI — At 4 p.m. today, a gaunt 61-year-old man will be strapped to a gurney at Florida State Prison in Starke. An anonymous executioner, hidden behind a one-way mirror, will inject Manuel Adriano Valle with three drugs. One to knock him unconscious. Another to paralyze him. And a third to stop his heart.

Jeneane Skeen will be watching in the execution chamber. Valle killed her father, Coral Gables police Officer Louis Pena, 33 years ago. For decades, she and her family pleaded for justice. They wrote to six governors to sign Valle's death warrant. Gov. Rick Scott finally did 12 weeks ago, his first execution.

"We're tired of waiting," Skeen said. "We want my father's justice to be done. He gave his life doing his job."

• • •

Pena joined the Gables police force in 1967 and was quickly paired with police dogs, trained to lead canine patrol units.

Pena, divorced and remarried, had four children. Paul and Jeneane were 19 and 13. Lisa and Lesley were 8 and 2. Pena's mother had bought him a bulletproof vest and begged him to wear it. He often didn't.

It wouldn't have made a difference three hours into his patrol shift one Sunday afternoon when he pulled over a Chevrolet Camaro for running a red light.

The driver of the Camaro was 27-year-old Valle. He had a friend in the passenger seat. Valle got out of the car so Pena could check his driver's license and plates.

Valle was scared. The Cuban-born welder and former Hialeah Senior High School track star — tall, with wavy dark hair and prominent sideburns — feared Pena would find out he had violated his probation. He had served jail time for a string of burglaries and thefts. He was wanted for allegedly trying to run a Sweetwater cop over after a traffic stop two years earlier.

Valle was married and had a 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca.

The Camaro was stolen. The driver's license belonged to someone else.

But Pena did not know that. The county's computer used to check licenses was down. The Camaro's tags came up as registered to a Toyota, yet the Camaro was not reported stolen.

Pena called for backup and lit a cigarette while he sat in his patrol car; Abraham, his K-9 German shepherd, was caged in the back seat. Pena was about to let Valle go when Valle, standing next to the patrol car, asked if he could walk back to the Camaro to get a cigarette.

Pena said yes. Valle returned with a hidden .380-caliber automatic pistol.

It was twilight on April 2, 1978. Pena was 41 years old.

At 6:44 p.m., a Gables police dispatcher received a call from a barely audible officer, a dog's frantic barking in the background.

"I'm shot," Pena gasped into the radio. "I'm shot. I'm shot."

• • •

Pena was shot in the neck. After 20 minutes, he drowned in his own blood. Abraham snapped his snout at paramedics who arrived to pull Pena's body out of the patrol car. They distracted the police dog to reach the slain officer. Doctors at Coral Gables Hospital tried to revive Pena for more than an hour.

After fatally injuring Pena, Valle, still standing, shot backup Officer Gary Spell in the back. Spell, sitting in his patrol car next to Pena's, was saved by a bulletproof vest.

Valle hopped back in his stolen car. Spell emptied his weapon shooting at the fleeing Camaro.

The bullet-pocked car was later found abandoned. A manhunt began.

Two days later, a Deerfield Beach police officer patrolling the beachfront spotted Valle and arrested him. In his light blue flight bag was a .380-caliber automatic pistol, the same kind used to kill Pena.

Then began Valle's decades-long journey through the legal system.

In his first trial, Valle was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial, ruling that a tough-love judge didn't give Valle's attorneys enough time — 24 days — to prepare an adequate defense.

Valle had declared himself guilty. "I don't believe I deserve the electric chair, sir," Valle told a prosecutor at the time. Before sentencing, he apologized for the murder, which he called accidental.

His second trial also concluded with a death sentence. This time, Valle had declared himself not guilty. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the guilty conviction but ordered a new sentencing hearing to comply with changed federal rules.

Valle was sentenced to death for the third time in 1988. His attorneys appealed, again and again. And decade after decade, the courts denied those appeals.

He has a last-ditch petition pending in federal court and another before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Valle's guilt is not in dispute. And there's no international outcry like that over Troy Davis, the man Georgia executed last week who maintained until the end that he was innocent.

Still, for the past three months, Valle's state-appointed lawyers have fought to keep their client in prison and spare him the death penalty. They succeeded in delaying the execution twice. It was initially set for Aug. 2, but temporarily stayed to examine the safety of a lethal injection drug. Valle will be the first Florida inmate executed using the sedative pentobarbital.

His last appeal was for clemency. The state began proceedings to review his case in 1992, but never appropriately followed through, his lawyers argued. Not so, countered the state. The courts have agreed.

In August, a weathered and balding Valle appeared in a Miami courtroom. He was in handcuffs, carrying a bulky file and wearing thick glasses that slid down his nose. After a few hours, he told the judge he preferred to return to prison rather than sit through the remainder of the hearing.

Valle, divorced for nearly two decades, occasionally turned to look at his family members in the courtroom. Pena's children and grandchildren, some who had traveled from Fort Myers, watched from across the aisle.

The two families, each of whom had spent decades living with the memory of what happened so long ago, did not speak a word to each other.

Manuel Valle to be executed Wednesday for killing Officer Louis Pena 09/27/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 9:40am]

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