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Flames erupt from inmate's mask during Florida execution

electric chair

But governor still backs death penalty

In this story:

March 25, 1997
Web posted at: 9:22 p.m. EST (0222 GMT)

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (CNN) -- Just hours after flames burst from the mask of a prisoner as he was electrocuted Tuesday, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered an independent medical examiner to participate in the autopsy but said he would not stop upcoming executions.

Death penalty opponents hold vigil for Medina
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"I don't have any thoughts on revisiting the death penalty. We've looked before at whether there are other methods that we could use. Certainly we'll be investigating, trying to see what happened here," Chiles said. icon (264K/24 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Pedro Medina, who was among nearly 125,000 Cubans who came to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, was executed at Florida State Prison in the north Florida town of Starke for stabbing his former teacher in Orlando in 1982.

Witness' description

Michael Minerva heads the Capital Collateral Representative, the state agency that represents death-row inmates
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  • Witnesses and prison officials said a 6-inch flame arose from the right side of Medina's black leather face mask during the execution, flickering for several seconds and filling the room with smoke and the smell of burning flesh.

    Medina, who had spent 14 years on death row, did not react obviously to the flames, having already lurched back and balled his hands into fists when the current hit him.

    He was executed despite his claims of innocence and mental illness, pleas of mercy from the daughter of the victim and a letter from the pope.

    Doctor says he found no burns

    Dr. Belle Almojera, the medical examiner, said in an affidavit that he didn't see any evidence that Medina suffered or find any burns on Medina's head.

    "He died a very quick, humane death. I did notice smoke coming from the hood. At no time while there was smoke did I observe any pain or suffering on the part of the inmate," he said.

    Chiles has asked for an analysis of the method by which the sentence was administered and for recommendations on future executions. Florida's next execution is set for April 15.

    While there was no visible reaction from the 39 witnesses, some later said they were nauseated by the sight and smell.

    "It was something entirely out of the ordinary. I have witnessed 11 executions and have never seen anything like what we saw this morning," said a visibly shaken Gene Morris, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.

    Attorney general calls incident a deterrent

    The incident prompted debate over capital punishment, as death-penalty opponents expressed outrage, and state politicians defended the use of the electric chair.

    "Florida should discontinue (use of the electric chair). There's a growing trend," said Medina's lawyer, Marty McClain.
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    "About eight states have stopped using the electric chair. There are only three states that use it on a regular basis. They're Florida, Georgia and Alabama, and I think it should be stopped," he said.


    However, Attorney General Bob Butterworth said the inmate's gruesome end would deter other criminals.

    "People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair," Butterworth said.

    By the end of last year, more than 300 prisoners had been executed in the United States since 1976, when the Supreme Court restored the death penalty.


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