Supreme Court rejects Florida’s attempt to bypass hearing on experimental execution drug

August 2, 2011

The US Supreme Court has refused a request by the state of Florida to lift a stay of execution for Manuel Valle, a Cuban citizen with close ties to Spain, ahead of this week’s ruling on the controversial new execution drug with which the state plans to kill him. 

Had Florida’s authorities been successful, Mr Valle would have faced execution today – three days before Circuit Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola is due to decide on whether the state’s use of the sedative pentobarbital breaks state and federal bans on cruel and unusual punishment.

Mr Valle’s stay was originally ordered by Florida’s Supreme Court in response to evidence that pentobarbital may cause an agonising death.The Court also ordered a fact-finding hearing on the drug, which replaced sodium thiopental in the three-drug lethal injection procedure following nationwide shortages last summer. Although the hearing is due to rule by Friday, Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi last week asked the US Supreme Court to vacate the stay for Mr Valle, arguing that his execution should be allowed to go ahead before the hearing was complete. The request was rejected. 

Florida already bears responsibility for several botched executions – notably that of Angel Diaz in 2006 which resulted in a two-year hiatus – but this would be the state’s first execution using pentobarbital. In other states, evidence of excessive suffering with the drug has led to legal challenges, stays and even the videotaping of an execution.  

Manuel Valle, a 61-year-old who has been on death row for more than three decades and is now being assisted by Reprieve’s EC Project, was sentenced to death for fatally shooting a Coral Gables police officer 33 years ago.  The case is riven with disturbing legal anomalies, not least that Mr Valle has been explicitly denied a meaningful chance to seek clemency. 

Reprieve investigator Katherine Bekesi said: “After denying him proper clemency proceedings and letting him languish on death row for 33 years, Florida is now seeking to execute Manuel Valle with a method that amounts to human experimentation. The Florida Supreme Court was right to order a hearing on the use of pentobarbital, which has been linked to cruel and unusual punishment in states across the USA. The state of Florida must face up to this disturbing issue if it is to avoid more any more ‘botched’ executions.”ENDS Notes to editors 1. 2. Manuel Valle is a Cuban national with Spanish links, who has now been on death row for 33 years. He has been denied proper clemency proceedings, and (similarly to the recent case of Humberto Leal in Texas) did not receive the consular assistance to which he was entitled. His execution has been stayed until September 1st to allow a full hearing on the matter to take place. 3. An eyewitness from the Associated Press has described the “thrashing, jerking death of Roy Willard Blankenship” during which “his eyes never closed”. The full text of Dr David Waisel’s affidavit on Roy Blankenship’s inadequate anaesthesia can be found onReprieve’s website. 4. Reprieve’s EC Project identifies and assists prisoners with European connections who are facing the death penalty in the USA.