Convicted child rapist and murderer Mark Dean Schwab was put to death Tuesday at Florida State Prison, the state’s first execution since a botched lethal injection 18 months ago raised concern that a condemned man had endured a “cruel and unusual” ordeal.
Schwab, 39, was executed for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Junny Rios-Martinez of Cocoa. He killed the boy in April 1991, just a month after early release from a previous prison term for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old boy.
Schwab died at 6:15 p.m. EDT, said Erin Isaac, spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
Attorneys for Schwab made a fruitless appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court late Monday, arguing that the last execution at the prison near Starke, in December 2006, was bungled, inflicting severe and prolonged pain on 55-year-old Angel Nieves Diaz.
“Florida is a state with a long history of failed and disconcerting executions,” Schwab’s appeal said, referring to macabre incidents in the 1990s when the state’s electric chair, nicknamed Old Sparky, set fire to the heads of condemned men before they died.
The Diaz case, in which executioners missed the inmate’s vein and injected chemicals into muscle tissue, spurred then-Gov. Jeb Bush to impose a moratorium on executions and order a review of lethal-injection procedures.
The state Department of Corrections made modest changes based on the review panel’s recommendations but retained the three-drug method used since Florida switched from executions by electric chair to lethal injection eight years ago.
Death penalty opponents contend that the drugs are poorly understood by those who administer them and that they can inflict pain, in violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Analysis of the state’s death chamber records showed that errors had occurred in 53% of the executions, based on excessively long interludes between chemical administration and death or physical signs that the inmate wasn’t fully unconscious or paralyzed, said Peter Cannon of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that handles death penalty appeals.
Under the three-drug lethal-injection routine practiced by Florida and three dozen other states, sodium thiopental is administered first to render the inmate unconscious, then the paralytic agent pancuronium bromide, and finally potassium chloride to stop the heart.
But in many of the previous 20 executions in Florida since lethal injection was adopted in 2000, the inmate showed signs of movement or consciousness, indicating that the first two chemicals hadn’t performed as intended, said Cannon, who represented Schwab in his unsuccessful appeals to both the state and U.S. supreme courts.
The sole reason for injecting the paralytic agent is “to mask any signs of reaction to pain on the part of the person being killed,” said Mark Elliott, spokesman for Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The new protocol, revised after the state review last year, required a warden to confirm that Schwab was unconscious before the next drugs were administered. In another change, the execution team was brought in from outside the prison where Schwab was held, to avoid any possibility of ill will between jailer and inmate influencing the lethal-injection procedure.
“The commission heard testimony that Angel Diaz had been taunted by guards saying that it was going to hurt. There was a feeling that some of the things that happened to him might have been intentional,” Elliott said of the botched execution, in which a semiconscious Diaz appeared to writhe in pain as the last drug burned through his tissue.
Schwab spent his final hours visiting with his mother and aunt until noon, after a last meal of bacon, eggs, sausage, hash browns, toast and chocolate milk, said Corrections Department spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger, who briefed reporters at the prison.
Schwab was the 10th person executed in the United States since the Supreme Court in April upheld Kentucky’s lethal-injection procedure after a challenge by two condemned men on the grounds that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Florida’s procedure is similar to Kentucky’s. The Tuesday night execution was the 65th since Florida reinstituted the death penalty in 1976, initially by electric chair.
It was the first execution under a death warrant signed by Crist, who took office the month after the Diaz execution. As a state senator a decade ago, Crist witnessed the electric-chair execution of a man who had killed a Jacksonville police officer.
Crist had authorized an execution date in November, but that was stayed by a federal judge to allow the Supreme Court to rule on the Kentucky challenge.
Schwab, 22, kidnapped Rios-Martinez and took him to a motel, where he bound, raped and strangled the boy on April 18, 1991.
After pleading not guilty and waiving his right to a jury trial, Schwab was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual assault of a child. He was sentenced to death on July 1, 1992, a punishment carried out exactly 16 years later.
Florida now has 387 inmates on death row, second only to California’s 673.
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Florida death row
Florida has one of the more active death rows in the U.S.:
Most executions since 1976
Death row populations
Florida’s death row
Average stay: 14 years
Average age: 45
Oldest inmate: 80
Youngest inmate: 21
Sources: Florida Dept. of Corrections; Death Penalty Information Center; Times reporting. Graphics reporting by TOM REINKEN