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Monday, December 18, 2006

Victim of 34 Minute Execution Claimed Innocence

This article, written by former Innocence Institute grad assistant Nate Crabbe, appeared in the Gainesville Sun Times on December 14, 2006.

Inmate takes 34 minutes to die

By NATHAN CRABBE
Sun staff writer
December 14. 2006 6:01AM
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Angel Nieves Diaz shuddered and appeared to grimace in pain during his execution Wednesday, requiring two rounds of lethal drugs before dying.Diaz, 55, was declared dead 34 minutes after the process started, about 20 minutes longer than recent executions have taken.

His appeals claimed lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and his execution seems likely to fuel the debate over the process.

The Puerto Rican native was sentenced to death for the murder of a Miami topless club manager 27 years ago this month. He professed his innocence in his last statement, which was spoken in Spanish and translated by a prison official.

"The state of Florida is killing an innocent person. The state of Florida is committing a crime because I am innocent," he said.

Observers couldn't recall another execution that required two rounds of drugs since lethal injection was instituted in 2000. Inmates are typically given three drugs in the process: the first to render unconsciousness, the second to cause paralysis and the third to stop the heart.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said Diaz had liver disease, slowing the effectiveness of the drugs and requiring the second round. Plessinger said Diaz didn't feel pain during the procedure.

"Once the first set of drugs was introduced, he did not recover," she said.But Diaz's family members and death-penalty advocates assembled outside Florida State Prison questioned her explanation. Mark Elliott of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said Diaz would have felt intense pain if he was conscious when the third drug was administered."The sensation is supposed to be like being burned alive from the inside out," he said.

Cousin Maria Otero of Orlando said the family wasn't aware Diaz had liver disease and demanded more facts about what happened. One of 16 family members who spent 45 minutes with Diaz earlier in the day, she said he was calm and professed his innocence.

"He asked for us not to lose the faith, to try to be united," she said.

Family members aren't allowed to witness executions, so they assembled with protesters in the pasture across the street from the prison. Relatives cried out in grief during the protests, and two passed out from what a relative said was anxiety.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his last-ditch appeals in the hour before the execution. Diaz claimed he was not the triggerman in the killing of Joseph Nagy during a robbery at the Velvet Swing Lounge.

He was convicted largely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed the Spanish-speaking Diaz mimed a confession. The informant later said he lied.While a co-defendant cut a deal with prosecutors and was given life in prison, Diaz acted as his own attorney at trial and was sentenced to death.

Diaz turned down requests for a final meal and was served the day's standard prison meal of turkey tacos, which he turned down. He later met with prison chaplain Dale Recinella and received last rites from Father Jose Maniyangat.

He asked that his body be sent to Puerto Rico for funeral services. Puerto Rican Gov. Acevedo Vila and other officials had asked Gov. Jeb Bush to stop the execution. The U.S. territory abolished the death penalty in 1929.

The execution was the fourth this year, the most since 2000 even with delays caused by challenges to the lethal injection method. Convicted cop killer Clarence Hill stopped his execution in January with such a challenge, only to be executed in September when further appeals were not allowed.

All four inmates executed this year have challenged the lethal injection procedure as cruel and unusual punishment, claiming inmates can wake and feel pain during the process. The state has argued the process is designed to ensure inmates are unconscious after the first drug is administered.

But Diaz's execution would appear to contradict that claim.After making his last statement at 6 p.m., Diaz appeared to wince and mouth words. Over the course of 10 minutes, he grimaced and shuddered at several junctures. He then moved his mouth in a way that made it appear he was gasping for air. Diaz stopped moving at 6:24, and was declared dead by prison officials 10 minutes later.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gvillesun.com.




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