A veteran Associated Press reporter and three other journalists who covered a botched execution were subpoenaed to testify in another inmate’s challenge to Florida’s lethal injection practices.
Attorneys for death row inmate Ian Deco Lightbourne, convicted in the 1981 murder of a Marion County woman, also want the reporters to disclose their notes from the Dec. 13 execution of Angel Diaz.
Diaz took 34 minutes to die – twice as long as usual – and Lightbourne’s attorneys say those problems support their claims that lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.
“It’s everything we have been saying all along,” said Lightbourne attorney Suzanne Keffer. “I want their accounts of what they saw at the Angel Diaz execution.”
Ron Word, the AP’s Jacksonville correspondent who has covered about 50 executions, was subpoenaed to appear in state court in Marion County on May 18 and May 21. Also subpoenaed were Phil Long of The Miami Herald; Chris Tisch of the St. Petersburg Times; and Nathan Crabbe of The Gainesville Sun.
The AP and the newspapers have filed motions to throw out the subpoenas on grounds that state law provides a “qualified privilege” protecting journalists from disclosing newsgathering information unless it cannot be obtained another way and is of “compelling interest.”
Circuit Judge Carven Angel has scheduled a hearing Friday in Ocala to hear those motions.
The news organizations contend there were numerous other witnesses to the Diaz execution, including Department of Corrections personnel and public witnesses, who could testify in the Lightbourne appeal about what happened. The question with those witnesses is whether they are independent enough.
“The subpoena should be quashed because reporters are witnesses for the public, not for parties to lawsuits,” said Judy Mercier, who is representing Word and the AP.
“We don’t want our reporters subpoenaed. It impedes us doing our work,” said Jacki Levine, managing editor of The Gainesville Sun.
Alison Steele, attorney for the St. Petersburg Times, said the protection of journalists from subpoenas in most cases “is fundamental to the function of the press in monitoring government.”
“We absolutely count on our reporters to be able to observe the actions of government and report to us as a people,” Steele said. “For the court or any party in a case to seek to co-opt that neutral observer into a witness, I think, is a tragedy.”
Word has testified once before in a similar case. Death row inmate Leo Jones challenged Florida’s electric chair in 1997 but lost his appeal and was executed the following year. Jones had based his claim on a previous execution in which sparks or flames shot out from the chair’s headpiece. Word was compelled by the court to testify, despite the AP’s objection.
Florida halted executions to investigate the Diaz case, but officials said this week that executions could resume by the end of this month.
Lightbourne, 47, was sentenced to die for the 1981 murder of Nancy O’Farrell after breaking into her home and stealing some of her belongings. Lightbourne knew O’Farrell and killed her to avoid identification, according to the state Commission on Capital Cases.
Lightbourne has been scheduled to die twice but has won stays to consider appeals. His latest appeal regarding the lethal injection challenge is pending before the Florida Supreme Court.