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Faulty chair renews execution debate

Flames and smoke shot from the hooded head of a Cuban boatlift immigrant as he was executed in Florida's electric chair Tuesday for killing a neighbor who had befriended him.

Pedro Luis Medina's execution was the second in seven years that erupted in flames, stunning onlookers and renewing questions about how Florida puts killers to death.

Proclaiming his innocence, Medina was strapped into the chair, a black hood lowered over his face. At 7:05 a.m., the instant he was hit with 2,000 volts of electricity, a flame about 8 inches high rose above Medina, burning for about 10 seconds. Dense white smoke filled the execution chamber at Florida State Prison, spreading an acrid odor into an adjacent observation room.

Within hours, state officials were grappling with whether the three-legged "Old Sparky" _ built by inmates in 1923 _ is a humane means of execution.

Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered an investigation into what went wrong with the electric chair. He appointed an independent medical examiner to perform an autopsy and said he was open to considering alternatives such as lethal injection.

Chiles, who was at the White House on Tuesday for a news conference with the President Clinton on Medicaid fraud, also suggested the next execution could be delayed. "If we find out anything is not working right (with the chair), it will certainly not go forward," he said of the execution scheduled for April 15.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth echoed Chiles' concerns but suggested Tuesday's incident could deter potential killers.

"I don't think (electrocution) is inhumane," he said. "What's inhumane are the acts committed by the people on death row. I don't think you're going to find too much sympathy out there for the guy sitting in the electric chair."

Florida is one of six states that use electrocution as their sole means of execution. The Legislature would have to change the law to allow for lethal injection or another means, but on Tuesday legislative leaders did not seem interested.

"I assume there have been unfortunate incidents with any type of execution," House Speaker Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, said. "I would assume there is a reason we came to the conclusion (of using the chair) that we did."

Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Orlando, said she does not think any changes are needed. "We need to make sure (electrocution) is an appropriate way for the state to handle executions, but a malfunction can happen at any point," she said.

The physician who examined Medina, Florida State Prison Medical Director Belle B. Almojera, said he thought the man died instantly, "a very quick, humane death." The small burns on Medina's head were similar to those found in previous executions, Almojera said.

But opponents of the death penalty were horrified.

"They burned him alive," said Michael J. Minerva, director of the Office of Capital Collateral Representative, which represents death row inmates.

"You can't tell me that doesn't cause pain and inflict torture," said Minerva, who witnessed the execution.

Death penalty opponent Michael Radelet, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Florida, said merely changing the means of execution would not make the practice more humane.

He said lethal injection is the most frequently botched kind of execution.

Radelet said he doesn't think Medina's execution will make any difference to public support for the death penalty.

"It really doesn't make any difference if we shoot, incinerate or saw them in half," Radelet said. "This was only displeasing to the audience, who were given a vivid reminder of exactly what we are up to here."

The last time Florida saw a fiery execution was in 1990, when flames and sparks shot from the head of double murderer Jessie Joseph Tafero. In that case, corrections officers mistakenly used a synthetic sponge to replace the natural sponge that conducts electricity to the condemned man's head.

After Tafero's bungled execution, the procedures were halted for several months until the electric chair was tested and pronounced fit for use.

The state has considered changing to lethal injection in the past. However, Butterworth noted changing the method of execution could prompt inmates to sue, claiming the rules were revised after the fact of their crimes.

"It just adds a bunch of frivolous lawsuits," Butterworth said. "That's why the state of Florida has not gone to lethal injection."

Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay said that when the electric chair malfunctions, it only helps build sympathy for the opponents of the death penalty. Lethal injection, he said, "is more reliable."

Indeed, 1990's botched execution was cited by Minerva's office in its efforts to get the electric chair declared cruel and unusual punishment.

"The possibility that this could happen a third time, I don't think the state should expose anyone to that, regardless of their crime," Minerva said Tuesday.

Harry Singletary, secretary of the state Department of Corrections, drove to Starke late Tuesday to console his staff.

"We do one of the most thankless jobs," Singletary said. "Nobody ever comes to speak to us when we do it right. Now we're going to be characterized by this one incident."

Singletary said mistakes will happen.

"For seven years, we have not had a problem," he said. "It's not a perfect world. We sent the space shuttle up and it blew up. Do we stop that? It's not a perfect world when human beings are involved."

Medina's execution ended what was already an unusual case.

Medina, 39, was the first so-called Marielito to be executed by Florida. He came to the United States in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift, when Fidel Castro allowed 125,000 Cubans, many of them criminals and mental patients, to emigrate.

Medina was condemned for the 1982 stabbing death of Dorothy James, an Orlando elementary physical education teacher who lived near him and befriended him.

James' body, which was discovered in her apartment, had been stabbed 10 times. Medina's hat was found near her body. He was captured in North Florida driving her car, which she had occasionally allowed him to borrow.

At his trial, Medina testified he was returning the car to James when he found her dead. He said he panicked and fled.

The prosecution said Medina tried to sell the car before he was caught.

Still, James' daughter said in November that she doesn't think Medina killed her mother. A Presbyterian church in New Jersey led a campaign on his behalf. Even Pope John Paul II tried to win mercy for Medina, only the third time the pontiff has directly intervened in a Florida execution.

In recent months, Minerva's office uncovered what it said was new evidence that James, 52, had been threatened by two men before her death.

Medina's lawyers also argued he was insane, and so was not eligible for execution. Medina ate feces in court during a hearing last month and claimed to have conversations with Albert Einstein and James.

Court-appointed psychiatric experts concluded Medina was faking his insanity. An Orange County trial judge concluded Medina might be mentally ill but still was competent.

Three of the seven judges of the Florida Supreme Court issued opinions last month saying Medina deserved a hearing on the newly discovered evidence. But the majority ruled the new evidence would not necessarily have changed the verdict at Medina's trial.

Medina's last day started at midnight Tuesday with face-to-face visits from four of his lawyers.

He talked and prayed with his spiritual adviser, the Rev. Glenn Dickson of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m.

"He told me he was not afraid of dying, he felt very connected to God," Dickson said after the execution. "It's obscene that the execution took place during Holy Week."

Medina requested a last meal of Delmonico steak, french fries, yucca salad, black beans with rice, butter pecan ice cream with strawberry syrup, coconut pie and Pepsi, said Eugene Morris, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.

Only when he made his final statement did Medina look directly at the audience members who sat just inches away on the other side of the plexiglass.

"I'm still innocent," Medina firmly told the witnesses before the black hood was lowered over his face.

The onlookers included 12 citizens, 12 reporters and more than a half-dozen corrections officers.

No relatives of Medina or James were present.

Electrocution

+ Head and legs shaved; electrodes soaked with a special cream.

+ Smoke ordinarily comes from head and legs where electrodes are attached.

+ 30-second jolt of 500 to 2,000 volts administered.

+ Doctor checks is prisoner is dead.

+ More 30-second jolts if necessary.

+ The body is too hot to be touched. Autopsy must wait until internal organs cool.

_ Information from Times staff writers Peter Wallsten and David Dahl and the Associated Press was used in this report.

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