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Florida's Execution Procedure In Question

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Florida Department of Corrections
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A drug Florida uses in it's lethal injection process is at the center of a major U.S. Supreme Court Case.

Over the last several years, European drug manufacturers have tried to limit the use of their products in lethal injection executions. As a result, death penalty states were left scrambling to find replacements.

In 2013, Florida began using a new drug called midazolam that is now the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case: Glossip v. Gross. The state, which has one of the most active active death chambers, has halted all executions for the past six months awaiting a decision on the case.

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Credit Florida Prisons
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Arm strap on the gurney in Florida's execution chamber.

The first time midazolam was ever used in a lethal injection procedure was in Florida, for the execution of William Happ in October, 2013. And some argue the problems were evident even in that case.

There are three drugs used in Florida’s lethal injection process, used in order.

The last drug administered is potassium chloride, which stops the heart, an experience that would be excruciatingly painful if the inmate were conscious.

So midazolam is administered first. It's intended to put the person in a coma-like sleep so pain doesn’t register.

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Credit Florida Department of Corrections
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William Happ

William Happ was convicted of the rape and murder of a 21-year-old woman from Lauderdale Lakes.

Tonya Alanez was covering the execution for the Sun Sentinel. It was the first time anyone would be put to death using midazolam.

Alanez was comparing this execution to one she had covered in 2009, which used a different drug combination.

When the drugs started flowing through the IVs into William Happ, “it seemed like more inner resistance, a lot more twitching and heavy breathing, a little bit of spasming. The chest heaved a bit. It wasn't big, violent and dramatic, it was very subtle. Twitchy,” says Alanez.

Alanez says William Happ’s body moved more than in the other execution she had witnessed, but she chalked it up to Happ's reluctance to give up life.

But lawyers opposed to the use of midazolam argue the twitching could be a sign that William Happ had been jolted into consciousness -- that the drug's effect had essentially been undone -- and that Happ was feeling excruciating pain from the potassium chloride.

“What happened is really unknowable,” says Megan McCracken, eighth amendment resource counsel with the Death Penalty Clinic at University of California Berkeley School of Law. 

She says what makes it unknowable is the second drug Florida injects into death row inmates.

In between the midazolam, which knocks the prisoners out, and the potassium chloride, which kills them, the state injects a paralysis-inducing drug that prevents the body from writhing.

“Once the prisoner's paralyzed he can't move, he can't breathe, he can't speak,” says McCracken. “He could be fully awake, conscious, aware of what's happening and have no ability to signal that.”

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Credit Wikimedia Commons / James Heilman
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James Heilman

Some, like McCracken, say there is simply no way to ensure midazolam keeps people in a deep-sleep the entire time, that you can’t tell during an actual execution.

Some anesthesiologists argue enough studies have been done to show that the drug should do its job in the death chamber.

Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court will have to decide: Do we know enough about midazolam to be sure it is not cruel and unusual?

The Florida Department of Corrections issued a short statement In response to WLRN’s questions about Florida’s death penalty procedure.

It says it’s confident in its ability to carry out a sentence humanely and with dignity.

The state isn’t saying what it will do if midazolam is taken off the execution table.