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The Stuff of Nightmares

 The Stuff of Nightmares  ING-046
17 November 2023

It is not possible to be prepared to witness the execution of a man I believe is innocent. But that is exactly what happens in 2006. The man’s death warrant is signed. He asks me to be his spiritual advisor. He claims innocence and alleges that the state’s star witness is in fact the one who committed the murder.

This condemned man’s request for clemency to life in prison deserves serious consideration. He is a decorated Vietnam Veteran who returned with ptsd and Agent Orange sickness; he was a single parent raising his children by working as a carpenter. Since coming to death row, he has continued as the parental figure in his daughters’ lives through mail and visits. Moreover, his death sentence was handed down by a jury vote of just seven to five. One vote different and he would have been given a life sentence.

His three daughters beg the governor to grant clemency, to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment. But in practice, there is no clemency in Florida in death penalty cases. It simply does not exist.

His appeals lawyers have collected boxes of sworn affidavits to the effect that his assertion of innocence is true. They beg the Florida Supreme Court to order an evidentiary hearing that will allow the judge to hear from the witnesses under oath and under cross-examination. That would allow a determination of whether in fact he is innocent and was framed by the state’s star witness.

The Florida Supreme Court refuses to consider the mess at all and hides behind a procedural doctrine that it is too late to hear evidence of innocence. All that sworn testimony will never be heard. The sworn evidence of his innocence will sit in a box in the basement of a Florida panhandle courthouse while this man is being killed by the state.

My wife and I are severely concerned about the well-being of his three daughters ranging in age from twenty-two to thirty. Susan obtains permission from the prison to be present at the final family visit the morning of the execution. Susan and I arrive together at fsp at about 7:00 a.m. The non-contact visits (with a glass partition) last for two hours and are grueling. Then it gets harder.

The contact visits require going through another security gate and then through two solid steel doors into an area down and across the hall. The one-hour contact visit is broken up into four fifteen-minute segments: first the brothers together, then the youngest daughter, then each of the other two daughters.

Each contact visit with a daughter ends with her holding onto her father for dear life and sobbing uncontrollably. One after another, I must peel each daughter off their father, take her by both arms and lead her out of the room and into the hall. When the second steel security door closes from behind, each of them freezes in uncontrollable grief, doubling over, sobbing and crying, “Daddy, I love you. Why are they going to kill my Daddy?”

Then I must practically carry each daughter through the hall security gate and back to the gathering area where Susan is waiting to assist her.

Meanwhile, I must escort the next daughter in for her fifteen-minute goodbye visit with her dad. Each visit ends the same. Each daughter crumples in a heap around the table by Susan, crying, “Why do they have to kill him? Why can’t they just let him live in prison?”

After the gut-wrenching goodbyes, Susan and I gather the daughters together and escort them out of the prison to the parking lot where we pray with them for a last time.

Then Susan prays with me before I return inside to the death house to take up my station with the condemned man at his cell, a dozen feet from the execution room, for the last five hours of his life.

At about 5:30 p.m., I go to the main lobby of the administration building of fsp . The announcement is made for the witnesses to proceed to the special entrance to the death house witness room. I take my spiritual advisor seat and wait for the curtain to open.

When the curtain opens, he is lying on the gurney in front of the window. I try to make eye contact with him, but the glare of the lights on the glass are interfering with his vision.

“Where is Brother Dale?” He calls out, lifting his head to peer through the window from the gurney. I raise my hand hoping he will be able to see it despite the glare.

“I love you, man.” He speaks clearly but softly, nodding directly at me.

All the witnesses hear him through the overhead mike. There is an immediate shift in the emotional feel of the entire witness room. In a split second those words have changed him from an object of scorn to a human being with connectedness to others. The effect is palpable.

Driving home from the execution, it occurs to me that watching an innocent man be killed may be all that is necessary to unleash nightmares. At that moment it is beyond my imagination that a deeper level of horror is in store for me.

By the week of Thanksgiving 2006, Susan and I have been through three executions in nine weeks. As our Thanksgiving preparations fall in place, we finally exhale and dare to assume that the gurney in Starke is done for the year.

Then, just two days before Thanksgiving, Angel Diaz is pulled to the death house. His family is notified the day before Thanksgiving. They are driving up from Miami overnight, after work, in multiple vehicles for an all-day deathwatch visit with him. They will meet Susan and me at fsp at 5:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

On Thanksgiving Day, at 4:45 p.m., Susan and I are standing at the steps of fsp inside the gates waiting to meet this new family. They are warm and gentle people. We know they have been driving all night and in a deathwatch visit all day. We invite them to a late Thanksgiving dinner at our home just 15 miles from fsp .

It seems that we and they are the only ones out driving that evening. The multiple vans follow us easily on the deserted county roads to our home in town. Soon, they are gathered around our dining room table — great aunt, brother, sister, nieces and nephews, cousins, and grandchildren playing on the floor while the adults talk and eat.

This is a middle-class Catholic family just like us. They never dreamed they would be at fsp on Thanksgiving for deathwatch visits. The execution date is set for December 13.

On the morning of the execution, I meet the family at fsp about ninety minutes before the non-contact visits are set to begin. The non-contact visits and then contact visits are by the book. The family leaves on time.

Father Jose arrives to fsp for Last Rites at 12 noon. When he returns to the chapel from the death house, I make the trek downstairs on Q-Wing to take my station at Angel Diaz’s death cell.

Angel tells me that he participated in Cursillo, a worldwide Catholic spiritual renewal movement, in high school in Puerto Rico. I participated in Cursillo in Tallahassee. The Cursillo retreat included many Spanish songs about farm animals and simple life. As Angel and I try to sing the Cursillo songs from memory, the death house guards ask us questions. Soon, we are teaching the songs to the uniforms within earshot.

At about 4:30 p.m. we close in prayer and I head to the administration building to join the other official witnesses. Before 6:00 p.m. the witnesses are all seated in front of the curtain. At 6:00 p.m. the curtain opens.

“The State of Florida is killing an innocent person.” Angel Diaz gives his last words in Spanish. “The State of Florida is committing a crime because I am innocent. The death penalty is a form of vengeance but also a cowardly act by humans. I am sorry for what is happening to me and my family who have been put through this.”

The warden reads the death warrant and orders the procedure to start. Within minutes I know that something is horribly wrong.

By the time it is over and I exit the death van, bedlam is overtaking the crowds outside fsp . Word of the botching of the execution and its duration has already leaked. There is nothing I can add to this crisis. While I am leaning against my car in the fsp parking lot to assess whether my stomach will stay in place for the drive home, Angel Diaz’s lawyer approaches me.

“Will you be willing to testify to what you just watched?”

“Only under subpoena and under oath.” I respond robotically with the formula that my attorneys have had me memorize for just such an occasion.

“You’ll be hearing from me.”

It takes my car almost twelve miles driving north on State Road 121 to get into cell phone range of my house. As soon as the connection bars pop up on my phone screen, I press the speed dial button for Susan.

“Susan …”

“Dale, is this you?” She asks falteringly.

“Yes, why?”

“Honey, I had no idea it was you. You don’t sound at all like you. What happened?”

“Susan, I just watched a man be tortured to death.”

By the next morning the entire death penalty industry in Florida is in an uproar. Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court grants an 8:00 a.m. motion for independent medical personnel to be present at the autopsy and to forestall any attempt at cremation of the body before the investigation is completed.

The medical reports are not pretty. The autopsy reveals that Angel’s arms are horribly burned inside, with a twelve-by-five-inch chemical burn in his right arm and an eleven-by-seven-inch chemical burn in his left arm. In fact, the autopsy shows that the lethal injection catheters pierced the front and back walls of his veins, pumping the chemicals directly into underlying soft tissues. Only gradually did enough poison to kill him leech back into his arterial system.

My nightmares start very soon after the botched execution. At first, I refuse to own them.

“Susan, I shouldn’t be having nightmares. It’s not like with Father Joe before me. He watched a man catch on fire and burn to death in the electric chair.”

“Really?” Susan is not supporting my denial. “Then, tell me, Dale: what’s the difference between watching a man burn to death from the outside in with electricity and watching a man burn to death from the inside out with chemicals?”

I know she is right. There is no meaningful difference. My nightmares are mine. And I better deal with them.

And I better deal with the political storm already headed in my direction.

A lawsuit is filed by Angel Diaz’s lawyers to end the use of lethal injection in Florida. I am subpoenaed and will be put under oath. The hearing will be in Ocala in front of a circuit judge. Florida circuit judges are the ones who hand down death sentences.

On May 18, 2007, my lawyer and I drive together to the Marion County Courthouse in Ocala.

The elevator dumps us into an upper-floor lobby, where we are expected. The bailiffs usher us into the courtroom and seal the doors. I will be the first witness to testify. The judge orders me to be put under oath. I am in the witness stand for over two hours.

In August of 2007 the circuit judge in Ocala orders the Florida Department of Corrections to show cause why the death penalty by lethal injection in Florida should not be declared unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment. But the window of hope closes quickly, just a month later.

In September 2007, the very same judge issues a final ruling that the Diaz execution cannot be called a botched execution because the goal was to kill the inmate and Diaz is dead.

The Florida Supreme Court simply affirms his ruling that Florida’s lethal injections can continue. The state’s death penalty industry is safe for another day.

By Dale S. Recinella