The state corrections official who stands beside condemned inmates as they take their last breaths in Florida's death chamber recently pulled back the veil on what has largely been a very secretive execution process.
The testimony was given during a Feb. 11 hearing in a lawsuit involving Paul Howell, a death row inmate scheduled to die by lethal injection Wednesday. Howell is appealing his execution; his lawyers say the first of the injected drugs, midazolam, isn't effective at preventing the pain of the subsequent drugs.
The Florida Supreme Court specifically asked the circuit court in Leon County to determine the efficacy of the so-called "consciousness check" given to inmates by the team leader.
The testimony is notable because it shows that the Department of Corrections has changed its procedures since the state started using a new cocktail of lethal injection drugs. A shortage of execution drugs around the country is becoming worse as more pharmacies conclude that supplying the lethal chemicals is not worth the bad publicity and the legal and ethical risks.
Timothy Cannon, who is the assistant secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections and the team leader present at every execution, told a Leon County court that an additional inmate "consciousness check" is now given due to news media reports and other testimony stemming from the Oct. 15 execution of William Happ.
Happ was the first inmate to receive the new lethal injection drug trio. It appeared Happ remained conscious longer and made more movements after losing consciousness.
Cannon said in his testimony that during Happ's execution and the ones that came before it, he did two "consciousness checks" based on what he learned at training at the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Indiana — a "shake and shout," where he vigorously shakes the inmate's shoulders and calls his name loudly, and also strokes the inmate's eyelashes and eyelid.
After Happ's execution, Cannon said the department decided to institute a "trapezoid pinch," where he squeezes the muscle between an inmate's neck and shoulder.
It was added "to ensure we were taking every precaution we could possibly do to ensure the person was, in fact, unconscious," Cannon said. "To make sure that this process was humane and dignified."
Cannon said an inmate is first injected with two syringes of midazolam and a syringe of "flush" — saline solution — to get the drug into the body. Midazolam is a sedative.
Once the three syringes have been administered from an anonymous team of pharmacists and doctors in a back room, Cannon does the consciousness checks.
Meanwhile, the team in the back room watches the inmate's face on a screen, which is captured by a video camera in the death chamber. The inmate is also hooked up to a heart monitor, Cannon said. There are two executioners in the back room along with an assistant team leader, three medical professionals, an independent monitor from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and two corrections employees who maintain an open line to the governor's office.
If the team determines that the inmate is unconscious, the other two lethal drugs are administered.