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Lethal injection is touted as option

Published Oct. 1, 2005

The day after flames burst from a killer's hood during his execution by electric chair, Florida's top legal official called on lawmakers Wednesday to allow the death penalty by lethal injection.

In the wake of Pedro Medina's botched electrocution Tuesday, Attorney General Bob Butterworth said allowing lethal injections would keep lawyers from slowing down executions by arguing in court that the electric chair is a cruel and unusual punishment.

Deputy Attorney General Peter Antonacci said the office was considering suggesting legislation that would allow current and future death row inmates to choose electrocution or lethal injection. Antonacci believes the choice could apply even to inmates who were specifically sentenced to die in the electric chair.

"The groundwork is being laid for further attack on the death penalty in Florida based on this incident," Antonacci said. "Let's remove this appellate issue and get on with the fair and impartial imposition of capital punishment."

Government leaders responded cautiously to Butterworth's request, noting that the electric chair has been approved as an acceptable means of execution by the U.S. Supreme Court. Cases questioning the use of lethal injection have not reached the high court.

Both Gov. Lawton Chiles and Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Orlando, said the issue needed further study before any action was taken.

Chiles added that he was open to the idea of lethal injection but wanted to hear more before endorsing it. He was concerned that changing the method might itself create a flood of appeals from inmates questioning the legality of the new means of execution.

"I want to hear from our legal people about what this whole situation does and what the posture is that we're in," Chiles said.

But House Speaker Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, ruled out the need for lethal injection.

"We're on safe ground where we are right now," he said. "I don't think we need to change."

Shortly after Medina's execution began Tuesday, flames leapt 8 inches from a hood covering his head and smoke filled the execution chamber. Medina, 39, was condemned for the 1982 murder of Dorothy James, an Orlando schoolteacher.

Prison officials still are trying to determine what happened, but suspicion focused Wednesday on whether the fire began in sponges attached to Medina's head to help conduct electricity.

In 1990, flames and sparks shot from the head of two-time killer Jessie Joseph Tafero after artificial sponges caught fire during his electrocution.

Medina's death _ described by some witnesses as "gruesome" _ immediately renewed the debate over use of the electric chair.

Michael Minerva, head of the state office that represents death row inmates, requested an independent autopsy of Medina's body to determine whether the electric chair burned Medina before he died, thereby inflicting cruel and unusual punishment.

Late Wednesday afternoon, four medical examiners in Gainesville were still conducting the autopsy. It was not known when their report would be completed.

Last year, both the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider Minerva's arguments that the electric chair is cruel, arguments filed on behalf of Medina.

"There definitely is a need to litigate this and get some facts in front of the court," Minerva said.

Antonacci said those sort of concerns are exactly why Butterworth is supporting lethal injection as an option. Defense attorneys would have a harder time arguing that the electric chair was an unfair means of execution if inmates had a choice of methods.

As for the legality of lethal injection, Antonacci said the issue had been litigated favorably in courts in the 16 other states where the method is used. "We believe it's a prudent way to go," he said.