Why Diaz Was on Death Row:
In December 1979, Angel Nieves Diaz, a low-income Puerto Rican immigrant, allegedly participated in the robbery of the Velvet Swing Lounge in Florida and shot the owner to death. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986. Diaz admitted to participating in the robbery, but has consistently denied shooting the owner.
The prosecutors were not able to link Diaz to the shooting using eyewitness testimony or physical evidence, so they relied on the testimony of two people who claimed that Diaz had confided his guilt to them: Diaz' girlfriend, and his cellmate Ralph Gajus.
Civil rights activists were suspicious of Gajus' testimony from day one because Gajus, who spoke no Spanish, claimed to have heard a detailed and articulate confession from Diaz, who spoke very little English. Gajus recently validated their concerns by admitting in a sworn declaration that he had in fact lied about hearing a confession from Diaz.
Despite Gajus' recantation, and the subsequent fact that the prosecution's case then hinged almost entirely on the testimony of Diaz' ex-girlfriend, judges refused to order a new trial.
Day of the Execution:
On December 13th, 2006, Angel Diaz was executed by the State of Florida. The botched execution reignited a national debate over whether or not lethal injection is a humane execution procedure.
A Botched Execution:
Lethal injection executions generally end within 15 minutes, with the inmate unconscious after the first 3-5 minutes; Diaz' took 34, and he was conscious for at least the first 25. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections initially claimed that Diaz felt no pain during the execution, but a coroner's investigation belied that claim.
What Went Wrong:
Lethal injection ordinarily begins with the intravenous injection of pentothol, which purportedly brings about a coma and makes the effects of later drugs painless. The trouble is that the needle went through Diaz' vein and into soft tissue deep in his arm, making the injection itself excruciating and possibly preventing the pentothol from taking effect.
Tortured to Death:
Eyewitness reports indicate that Diaz was still moving and attempting to speak (or, perhaps, scream) more than twenty minutes into the execution, suggesting that he was still conscious and in pain. Diaz would have remained partially paralyzed by the injection of pavulon, a muscle relaxant administered shortly after the pentothol. His death was almost certainly slow and excruciatingly painful--and with his body frozen by the pavulon, he would have had no way of expressing that pain.
Jonathan Groner, associate professor of surgery at the Ohio State Medical School, echoed the sentiments of many medical experts who examined the Diaz execution: "It sounds like he was tortured to death." Governor Jeb Bush ordered that all Florida executions be halted until problems with Florida's lethal injection protocols could be addressed. California and Maryland soon issued similar moratoria on the use of lethal injection.