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Florida Supreme Court Stays Execution of Valle

The Florida Supreme Court temporarily stayed the execution of Manuel Valle earlier this week, pending a hearing over Florida’s use of new drug in its lethal injection process. Valle shot and killed a Coral Gables police officer on April 2, 1978, after being pulled over for a traffic violation.

Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant on June 30, setting Valle’s execution for August 2. The temporary stay issued this week delays that until September 1. The court also ordered a hearing on Florida’s recent switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital as part of the three-part lethal injection procedure.

Valle and his lawyers appealed the death warrant on several grounds, including the use of pentobarbital. The barbiturate is intended to anesthetize the condemned inmate to a state of unconsciousness so they do not feel pain during the execution. The second drug administers is intended to paralyze the inmate and the third drug stops the inmate’s heart.

In June, the Florida Department of Corrections made the switch to pentobarbital from sodium thiopental. The pharmaceutical company that sold the state sodium thiopental discontinued its production of the drug.

Valle was scheduled to be the first inmate executed under the new drug protocol. His appeal raised questions about whether the use of pentobarbital in the amount prescribed by the state could cause him to suffer pain.

The Supreme Court did not rule on that question in issuing its order this week. It ruled 4-3 that Valle’s claim merits an evidentiary hearing. The hearing is now supposed to take place in Miami by August 5. Oral arguments, if necessary, will be heard by August 24. This will give the Court a week to make its ruling before the September 1 execution date.

The Court ordered the Corrections Department to provide any documents it has from the manufacturer of the pentobarbital regarding the safety and efficacy of the barbituate.

Valle was first sentenced to death a mere 24 days after his arrest. The trial and conviction was so quick that the Florida Supreme Court ultimately ordered that he be re-tried. He was later re-tried and sentenced to death two more times, amid post-conviction litigation that even reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on several occasions that specific lethal injection protocols do not violate the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment found in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Any changes to the previously OK’d protocols are bound to raise questions and revive post-conviction litigation.

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