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Cuban immigrant executed in Florida; flames seen around his head

March 25, 1997

STARKE, Fla. (AP) _ Fire burst from the mask covering the face of a Cuban immigrant as he was executed today for the 1982 slaying of a schoolteacher who had befriended him.

Pedro Medina, 39, died at 7:10 a.m., said April Herrle, a spokeswoman for Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Blue and orange flames up to a foot long shot from the right side of Pedro Medina’s head and flickered for six to 10 seconds, filling the execution chamber with smoke.

The smell of burnt flesh filled the witness room and lingered as observers left two minutes after Medina’s death.

``I am still innocent,″ were his last words.

``It was brutal, terrible. It was a burning alive, literally,″ said a witness, Michael Minerva. He heads the state agency that represents indigent death-row inmates.

The governor asked the state Department of Corrections for a review. ``It’s certainly distressing to have something like this happen,″ Herrle said.

Once before, a condemned man died in flame, and the result was a temporary halt in executions in Florida. In May 1990, flames shot from the top of the mask as Jesse Tafero died for the slaying of a highway patrol trooper and a visiting Canadian constable. Tafero was finally declared dead after three jolts of electricity.

Attorneys for some other condemned inmates won stays from a federal appeals court with arguments that the Florida electric chair was not functioning properly. But executions eventually were resumed.

A review concluded the Tafero fire was caused by use of a synthetic sponge, a poor conductor of electricity. But the sponge used today appeared to be an appropriate natural sea sponge.

Medina, one of nearly 125,000 Cubans who came to the United States during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, was the first Cuban immigrant executed in Florida, according to Richard Martell, who defends death sentences for the state. He was put to death despite pleas from the pope and the victim’s daughter that his life be spared.

A jury convicted Medina of stabbing Dorothy James, 52, his former neighbor, after hearing he was found in north Florida with her Cadillac a few days after her slaying. A knife believed to be the murder weapon was found in the car. The victim, a grade school physical education teacher, had befriended Medina when he moved to Orlando.

Ms. James’ daughter, Lindi James, expressed her opposition to the execution, saying she never believed Medina killed her mother and didn’t think her mother would want him executed.

Pope John Paul II also made a plea for mercy for Medina, just his third plea for mercy in a Florida case. The state has executed 39 people since 1976.

``A gesture of mercy in this case would greatly contribute to the promotion of non-violence and of mutual respect and love in society,″ wrote Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, the pope’s representative in the United States.

The execution, originally scheduled for December, was delayed after Medina’s attorneys cited a rarely used state law banning the execution of anyone who doesn’t understand that they are going to die or why they are being executed.

Three psychologists who examined Medina concluded he was acting crazy to save his life. At a later hearing ordered by the state Supreme Court, a judge concluded Medina had some mental problems but could be executed.

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