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Florida Supreme Court Stays Execution, Raising Questions About Cruelty of Lethal Injection Cocktail

| November 19, 2013

They call it a cocktail. (ZaldyImg)

They call it a cocktail. (ZaldyImg)

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

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15 Responses for “Florida Supreme Court Stays Execution, Raising Questions About Cruelty of Lethal Injection Cocktail”

  1. Diana L says:

    Abolish the death penalty. It costs too much money.

  2. Times Up says:

    Perhaps we can execute him with a sharpened spoon ? Fair is Fair

  3. BLR says:

    The man he killed wasn’t fortunate enough to be unconscious when he killed him!

  4. Marissa says:

    Geez, I have put 3 animals to sleep and was with them until the end. They went peacefully.

  5. m&m says:

    Cruelty?? What kind of B.S. is that. Were they more human when they killed people???/

  6. Citizen says:

    He didn’t care if his victims felt pain or were subjected to especially cruel deaths, so why should anyone care if his death is cruel and causes pain?

  7. tom jack says:

    Oh yeah. I’m sure the accused was very conscious about not causing any of his three victims any pain when he murdered them in cold blood. Let’s give him the same treatment as he gave his victims.

  8. DSP3073 says:

    Why should anyone care if he suffers from the injection? Did he care that the C.O. He stabbed to death, no doubt suffered as he bled out? Or the fact that the C.O. ‘S family has suffered every day since losing their loved one?

  9. Beach Bum says:

    I don’t see where his victim (s) were granted a stay of execution. What did I miss???

  10. orphan says:

    Was there a typo here? THIRTY THREE freaking years this animal has wondered when his last breath would be drawn?
    Who is causing the “cruel” here? I say it’s those ‘fat-cats’ sitting on their appointed butts and doing all of us a cruelty!

  11. rhweir says:

    It is disappointing that some people’s behavior is still so abysmal in 2013 that we have to maintain a death penalty option. If we have it, we should use it otherwise, abolish it. I mean what’s worse, life in prison or death. The guy,in Cleveland, Castro I think it was, decided death was preferable.

  12. rthomp11 says:

    I say once you are found guilty, and you use up your appeals (3 I think), all of which should be done within a certain amount of time, then the execution should be done…period…end of story. If lethal injection is to cruel then there is always hanging or firing squad or eye for an eye i.e. killing them they way they killed their victims…a few death row inmates dieing like that and maybe there won’t be so many on death row. There will also be lower cost to the state too, lower costs in prosecutions and keeping them in jail. I think it’s pretty sad that we give drug offenders more time than we give murders and rapist.

  13. ted bundy says:

    bring back old sparky for all..its what they so richly deserve!!!

  14. ryan says:

    This is once again an example of perps’ rights advocates who have no respect for the victims of these killers costing the taxpayers more money unnecessarily. appeals should only be for those pleading for their innocence, but the end of the death penalty is opening the door to European style justice where life in prison is abolished.

  15. I/M/O says:

    It is mind boggling how many people in this nation have created good paying jobs in so called non profit organizations defending the rights of those who have already been convicted of a crime and forfeited their rights.

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