Last Wednesday, September 28 2011, the state of Florida executed Manuel Valle. I was there to cover the execution, but it’s taken me a few days to gather my thoughts and find the time to sit down and blog about it. I’ve finally done so, and I’ll also be trying to toss together all the video I shot and get that posted here soon. I only snapped a few pictures on my iPhone, but they’re here as well.
As I’ve detailed before, Valle was on death row for the 1978 shooting of Coral Gables Police officer Louis Pena. Valle was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 4pm at Florida State Prison. I arrived at FSP in Starke around 1:30, so I could get set up for the media announcement at 2 p.m. I was surprised by the lack of media there, especially since it was only a week after the incredibly publicized Troy Davis execution had propelled the death penalty into the mainstream media. But there were only a handful of media organizations there, including 3-4 local TV stations, a few reporters from papers in Miami, Gainesville and the like, and an Associated Press reporter. There’s some commentary here about the lack of coverage at Valle’s execution if you’d like to read more.
At 2 p.m., the prison spokesperson gave a statement detailing Valle’s last few hours. At noon, he was served and ate most of his last meal, which consisted of fried chicken breast, white rice, garlic toast, peach cobbler and Coca-Cola. He spent several hours in the morning visiting with his family in a no-contact visit and then spent one hour in a contact visit with his daughter, sister and niece. The official described Valle as “very calm, very polite and compliant.”
Around 3:30 a bus full of anti-death penalty protesters showed up, most of which were from Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. There were about 30-40 protestors there on the opposition side, but no one entered the supporters protest pen. There were a few members of the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police who said they were there to support the Pena family, but they didn’t enter the supporters pen and instead mingled with the state troopers who were there for security. The opposition protestors had a short service with prayers and songs before falling silent and all facing the prison as the time of the execution arrived.
After the scheduled execution time, all the media waited for some kind of confirmation of the execution. Cameramen waited along the road to get the shot of the hearse leaving the prison, but around 30-45 minutes when the hearse finally pulled out, it went the opposite way of its normal route, in what was the first hint that something was off. The protestors packed up and headed back to the bus and the media began to make their way back to the media zone where prison officials should have been arriving to give a final statement. It was around 5 p.m. when someone from the media found out that Manuel Valle was still alive.
Despite media outlets like The Miami Herald running stories pronouncing Valle dead after 4 p.m., he was in fact still alive and waiting on word from the United States Supreme Court. There was quite a bit of confusion, since no one could find out what was going on. The media witnesses were already inside the prison, with no means of communicating with those of us outside. There were rumors that Valle was waiting on the gurney (he was actually in the death watch cell), rumors that it could be the next day before the execution proceeded and even rumors of a stay. No one knew what was happening for several hours. The protest pen was empty, except for one lone woman who came back, saying that if they went through with the execution, she didn’t think it would be right for no one to be there. Finally, around 6:15 or so, word came through that the stay was denied in this Supreme Court opinion.
The execution began at 6:56 p.m. when the curtain in front of the witness room opened. According to media reports, Valle appeared calm and relaxed, possibly because before executions the inmate is offered a Diazepam, which is a sedative. He declined to give any last statement. The first drug, meant to render the inmate unconscious, was administered and Valle raised his feet, turned his head toward the team warden, Timothy Cannon, and said something that couldn’t be heard by the witnesses. He then yawned, laid his head back down and closed his eyes. At 7:04 the team warden tapped Valle’s eyes and shook his arms a bit to make certain he was unconscious. At that point the two other drugs were administered and at 7:13 p.m. a doctor entered the chamber to examine Valle. He was pronounced dead at 7:14 p.m.
Following the execution the family of Officer Pena gathered to make a statement to the media. Jeneane Skeen, Pena’s daughter, read the following:
On April 2nd, 1978 Manuel Valle murdered our father, Louis Pena. For 33 years we sat through two trials, a resentencing hearing and countless appeals, because a murderer has rights. For 33 years we were told at the various hearings don’t cry, don’t smile, don’t show any emotions. That could sway the juries and God forbid, delay the judicial process. We followed all the rules. Why? Because a murderer has rights. For 33 years we’ve wondered when do our father’s rights become important? When do the rights of the Coral Gables police officers and the law enforcement officers of the state of Florida become important? Is this the kind of justice they deserve and can expect for serving and protecting? This is not justice. For 33 years people have asked us if the death penalty will really bring us closure. At this point, it’s beyond closure and it’s beyond justice. We finally got revenge on the lowlife piece of human waste that murdered our father. Officer Louis Pena finally got his rights.
There was no statement from Valle’s family, as families of the inmate are not allowed to be at the prison while the execution takes place.
It’s interesting to note that the Supreme Court denial of a stay for Valle included one dissent, from Justice Breyer. Breyer had qualms about the lengthy amount of time Manuel Valle had been waiting on death row. Valle was on Florida’s death row for 33 years, making him one of the longest serving death row prisoners in the nation. Florida’s death penalty was reinstated in 1976, but the first execution after it was reinstated was not until 1979. That means that Manuel Valle was there to witness every single execution in Florida in the past 3 decades, all 69 of them. Before lethal injection was adopted, Valle had to watch the lights dim along death row whenever the staff did regular checks of the electric chair and whenever there was an execution. It’s this lengthy sentence that Breyer questioned and the issue of compounding both a death sentence with a sentence to a long, solitary and torturous wait leading up to it. In his dissent, Breyer wrote:
“I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death…so long a confinement followed by execution would also seem unusual. The average period of time that an individual sentenced to death spends on death row is almost 15 years. Thirty-three years is more than twice as long…I would focus upon the ‘moral sensibility’ of a community that finds in the death sentence an appropriate public reaction to a terrible crime. And I would ask how often that community’s sense of retribution would forcefully insist upon a death that comes only several decades after the crime was committed.”