Florida has embarked on a macabre form of experimentation by introducing a new drug into lethal injections that might result in death row prisoners feeling agonizing pain during an execution. To get at the truth, the Florida Supreme Court on Monday suspended an execution and has ordered further hearings. The new drug is a slow-acting, quickly dissipating sedative that could result in the subject regaining consciousness during the procedure. It is further evidence of misguided attempts at justice.
Florida recently added the Valium-like sedative midazolam hydrochloride to its three-drug protocol as a substitute for pentobarbital, a strong barbiturate. Over the last few years international drugmakers have refused to supply drugs to the United States for executions, and the remaining supplies of pentobarbital have been largely exhausted. The state argues the new drug is an equivalent knockout drug. But attorneys for Miami killer Askari Abdullah Muhammad, formerly known as Thomas Knight, have challenged the new drug as less effective at bringing an inmate into a surgical plane of anesthesia that renders him fully unconscious. This is important because the next two drugs cause an excruciating death.
One is a paralytic that leads to asphyxiation and has been banned in Florida for use in euthanizing pets. The other interferes with the heart's electrical activity and causes cardiac arrest. If an inmate wakes from the sedative or is never fully unconscious, it is possible his paralysis would make him unable to call out while experiencing slow suffocation and pain equivalent to that of a surgical incision in the abdomen.
Two inmates in Florida have been executed using this protocol so far. Witnesses to the execution last month of William Frederick Happ say he was conscious for an exceptionally long time after receiving midazolam hydrochloride and moved his head during the execution. He might have been suffering.
The Florida Supreme Court has a duty to ensure that executions are conducted in accordance with the state and federal Constitutions that bar killing prisoners in a cruel manner. The court's delay of Muhammad's scheduled Dec. 3 execution is more than justified. The court directed a circuit court in Bradford County to hold hearings and rule by Tuesday, after which time the high court will review the matter.
But this mess gives Florida leaders another reason to consider following states like Illinois and Maryland that have repealed the death penalty. States are increasingly recognizing that the death penalty is arbitrary, expensive for taxpayers and sometimes mistakenly imposed. At least 143 people who were innocent of their crimes have spent time on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Florida has 24 people on that list, the most of any state in the nation.
Now the possibility the state will torture someone to death is added to this error-prone system. It is a policy not worthy of Floridians or American jurisprudence.