Florida Supreme Court Stays Execution, Raising Questions About Cruelty of Lethal Injection Cocktail
FlaglerLive | November 19, 2013
A divided Florida Supreme Court put the execution of a convicted murderer on hold Monday to consider claims that the three-drug cocktail used to put inmates to death could cause unnecessary suffering.
By a 5-2 ruling, justices ordered the state to hold off administering the death penalty to Askari Abdullah Muhammad, who was sentenced to die by lethal injection for the October 1980 murder of a state correctional officer while Muhammad was on Death Row.
Muhammad, 62, stabbed Officer Richard James Burke to death with a sharpened spoon. He was set to be put to death Dec. 3 using a new combination of drugs that includes midazolam hydrochloride instead of pentobarbital sodium as part of the cocktail. The drug, the first of three injections, renders the inmate unconscious.
But Muhammad’s attorneys have argued that William Frederick Happ, who was executed last month using the new mix, was conscious for an unusually long time while being put to death and moved his head — showing that Muhammad might experience pain while being executed if the new drugs are used.
“We conclude based on the allegations in Muhammad’s … motion that he has raised a factual dispute, not conclusively refuted, as to whether the use of midazolam hydrochloride in Florida’s lethal injection protocol will subject him to a ‘substantial risk of serious harm,’ ” said Monday’s court opinion signed by five justices.
The ruling was supported by Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince, Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry. Those five justices often form the majority in 5-2 splits.
The opinion orders a circuit court in Bradford County to hold a hearing and rule on the issue by Nov. 26. The Supreme Court would then review that ruling, with oral arguments scheduled for Dec. 18 if the justices choose to hear the case.
In a brief dissent, Justice Charles Canady said Muhammad had not demonstrated that a stay of execution was warranted.
“Under the current protocol, if the injections of midazolam hydrochloride do not promptly render Muhammad unconscious, the execution will be suspended and Muhammad will not be injected with the second and third drugs until he is unconscious,” Canady wrote. “Muhammad does not allege that the Florida Department of Corrections revised these safeguards, nor does he allege any reason to suspect that the movement of Happ’s head was a voluntary expression of pain, rather than an involuntary movement made while unconscious.”
Chief Justice Ricky Polston joined the dissent.
The new drug combination used by the Department of Corrections was prompted after Denmark-based manufacturer Lundbeck, which makes pentobarbital sodium, decided to refuse to sell the drug directly to corrections agencies for use in executions and ordered its distributors to also stop supplying the drug for lethal-injection purposes.
States have since been struggling to maintain stockpiles of pentobarbital sodium.
Muhammad, who was known at the time as Thomas Knight, was initially convicted of kidnapping and killing Sydney and Lillian Gans in 1974. He also escaped from the Dade County Jail while awaiting trial and was involved in a liquor store robbery in Cordele, Ga., where two clerks were shot, with one killed.
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida