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Death penalty woes

Recent botched executions have catapulted the issue of capital punishment to the forefront once more, with questions about the effectiveness of the lethal injections used to execute killers.

As one of the leading states in sentencing people to die — and also for exonerating them from Death Row — Florida is vulnerable.

How long until we — like Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona — we make national headlines for an apparent inhumane execution of one of the 400 people on Florida’s Death Row?

In light of the failed executions, California’s top-ranking federal judge recently suggested a novel idea: bringing back the fail-safe firing squads. Maybe this is an idea whose time has come again. But the judge wasn’t first with the idea. Coincidentally, legislation filed in anticipation of the 2012 Florida legislative session called for an end to lethal injection deaths and suggested firing squads be used instead. The measure fizzled.

California along with Arkansas and North Carolina halted executions partly due to the faulty lethal injections. Florida should consider following in their footsteps. After all, adding torture to the final minutes of a condemned prisoner's life has never been part of the deal.

The American Bar Association, which takes no stance on the death penalty, said the 32 states that use lethal injections must do so “fairly, accurately and with due process.”

But take note: In January in Ohio, Dennis McGuire gasped for air as the deadly drug cocktail went into his veins.

In April in Oklahoma, Clayton Lockett writhed in pain and finally died of a heart attack — 43 minutes later. Last month in Arizona, James Woods gasped for air and received more lethal injections as the state tried to kill him for nearly an hour.

Problems with the nation’s mode of killing began in 2011 when the European Commission imposed tough restrictions on the export of deadly drugs to U.S. corrections departments. As a result, Florida and others are using their own deadly cocktails.

Fifteen years ago, Florida had put away its Franken-machine Old Sparky and turned to those “more humane” lethal injections.

But executions gone wrong are nothing new in Florida. Flames shot out of Jesse Tafero’s head at his 1990 execution via Old Sparky. In 1997, the same thing happened to Pedro Medina. And in 1999, Allen Lee Davis died bloodied due to a chin strap placed incorrectly.

The messy executions have opened the door to a broader discussion about Florida’s death penalty. That's not a bad idea.

The Florida Bar took a position in 2013 supporting a comprehensive review of the way the state kills — from the point of arrest to examining who ends up on Death Row.

While the bar’s position has technically sunsetted, it offered up a road map for reform. The state should follow it.

As a civil society, capital punishment is often a hot button issue, ripe for debate. Fair enough.

But even the staunchest proponents, the ones who say, “But what about the pain these condemned killers inflicted on their victims? ” must feel uncomfortable with these botched executions, if not the broader concerns with the fairness, accuracy and impartiality of Florida’s entire death penalty process. Back in 2006, an American Bar Association team report declared it flawed.

If the recent horrors in the death chamber become the new norm, and we continue to ignore long neglected problems with the system, what does that say about us?

This story was originally published August 13, 2014 8:44 PM.

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