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The Palm Beach Post

Warden on Death Penalty: 'This Is Wrong'

Dara Kam

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Murderer Pedro Medina was strapped into "Old Sparky" shortly after midnight on March 25, 1997, at Florida State Prison.0630 02 1

Warden Ron McAndrew stood nearby as a guard placed a wet sponge to conduct more than 2,000 volts of electricity onto Medina's shaved head.

The executioner pulled the switch. Within seconds, an arm's length from McAndrew, 6-inch flames leaped out the side of the mask on Medina's head.

The cramped chamber immediately filled with smoke and a putrid, acrid odor.

The executioner, wearing oversize insulated gloves that protect linemen working on electrical wires, sought advice from the warden.

"He looked at me with this big question on his face, and he said, 'Continue?' " McAndrew recalled recently. "I said, 'Continue. Continue.' There's no way we could stop at that point."

Medina's searing death and two executions before it led McAndrew down an unlikely path since he quit prison work: He is a working opponent of the death penalty.

"All three executions ignited a fire of thought," McAndrew said. "Each time I carried out one of those executions, I certainly was asking myself why I was there and is this necessary."

Witness entire process, ex-warden says

On Tuesday, Florida plans to execute by lethal injection Mark Dean Schwab, who raped and strangled 11-year-old Junny Rios-Martinez of Cocoa. McAndrew opposes the execution.

During his time at Florida State Prison, McAndrew earned the moniker "The Walking Warden" because he spent more time outside his office walking the grounds than behind his desk.

He said he visited Death Row every day.

McAndrew said he supported the death penalty during his 20-plus years with the Department of Corrections.

"One day I just sat down and said, 'This is wrong. This is wrong. We have no business killing people,' " he said, except in self-defense, in defense of someone else or in defense of the nation.

Not everyone agrees.

Proponents of the death penalty, including some families of murdered children such as Rios-Martinez, argue that the execution helps them deal with their loss.

"That will not serve as a substitute for getting our son back, but it is as close as we can get to justice in this rather imperfect world we live in," said Don Ryce, whose 9-year-old son Jimmy was raped, murdered and dismembered in Miami-Dade County in 1995. Juan Carlos Chavez was convicted of the crime.

Ryce said Chavez's execution would bring his wife, Claudine, and him "as close to a feeling of peace to that chapter of our life that we're ever going to get." He said he supports the death penalty, although he may not live to witness Chavez die because of the lengthy appeals process.

"He'll probably outlive us because of our screwed-up system," Ryce said. "But if we're still alive, we'll be there for the execution. And we have had some people promise us if we don't make it, they'll be there for us."

"From the standpoint of not only myself but Claudine, we feel the death penalty is appropriate in this case, knowing that won't bring our child back. Knowing there's no such thing as closure. Knowing that justice has been done. We don't feel that way yet," said Ryce, of Vero Beach.

Although McAndrew understands the feeling of the victims' families, the executions he witnessed still haunt him.

Schwab's will be the first execution since former Gov. Jeb Bush put a moratorium on executions in 2006 pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on lethal injection. The court ruled recently that lethal injection is not cruel and unusual punishment.

McAndrew, a slow-spoken activist, grows agitated when talking about lethal injection and the likelihood that executions will resume in Florida.

The most recent inmate executed by lethal injection, Angel Diaz, took more than 30 minutes to die because the needles had been pushed through his veins into his flesh.

But none of the 26 witnesses on the other side of the glass window looking into the execution chamber knew that because, when the curtains behind the window were opened, Diaz was already on a gurney with IVs in his arms.

"If they're going to be honest and forthcoming about what's going on in the death chamber, then from the second the condemned walks into the chamber until the body is placed in a body bag, all 26 witnesses should be there," McAndrew said.

Opponents welcome an insider's voice

Other death penalty opponents tell him that he's an invaluable resource.

"They say only someone who's been that close to it can speak about it in the way that you do," McAndrew said, his voice growing soft.

The former Air Force sergeant began his career in corrections after returning to the United States following a 15-year stint living and traveling throughout France and Asia as a manager for an international exporter.

He never imagined then that, less than two decades later, he would be the warden of one of the state's toughest institutions, landing in 1996 at Florida State Prison.

There, he oversaw three executions in the electric chair: John Earl Bush, John Mills Jr. and Medina.

His first experience, Bush's execution, was uncomfortable, he said. Bush had killed 18-year-old Frances Slater after abducting her from a Stuart convenience store.

The members of the execution team told the warden that it was a tradition to have breakfast at Shoney's after the early morning executions.

"I got to Shoney's and the food started looking very disgusting," McAndrew said. "At the table directly in front of me, I could see the back of the female attorney (for Bush). She turned and looked over her shoulder at me. She had a look of pain on her face."

He left without eating.

'I'd had all the breakfast I could stand'

Starke is a small town with a population of about 5,500 people, most of whom work at the nearby prison, have retired from there or have family members who do.

Everyone at the restaurant knew the group had performed the execution.

What troubled McAndrew was that the public might misconstrue the breakfast as celebratory.

Before the next execution, McAndrew spoke with the colonel on the team: "I told him I'd had all the breakfast I could stand."

Paul Schauble Jr. spent more than a decade as a Death Row officer, taking condemned inmates to showers and recreation and delivering their meals.

He doesn't have any qualms about the job he performed for 12 years.

"Most of us believe we have a job to do. And whether I believe they are innocent or deserve their punishment, my job is to make sure they stay inside the fence and I take care of all their needs and then I go home," Schauble said.

Although he didn't enjoy it, he believes that the prisoners he tended to deserved to die because their crimes were so egregious and their court appeals, over and over again, had been exhausted. He has been the target of Death Row inmates' wrath. He has been hit with feces and bricks, been gouged and stitched up.

The union representative of the Police Benevolent Association doesn't have a lot of sympathy for the prisoners.

"By the time they get on Death Row, the investigation is so extensive ... I truly believe they are guilty of that crime," Schauble said.

Before dawn on the day of the execution, McAndrew would sit on the side of the inmate's bunk and read the death warrant aloud after explaining that he was required to do so by state law.

"You ask them if there's anything you can do for them. If there's any phone call you'd like me to make, I'll be glad to do that," McAndrew said.

Those last moments alone with the person whose death he was about to facilitate haunt him.

"They share things with you in those last moments too, things that you'll never talk about again," he said.

The positions are reversed now.

"These men come and sit on the edge of my bed, so to speak," McAndrew said. "In my mind, I see them a lot. I wish I had never been involved in carrying out the death penalty."

Copyright 2008 The Palm Beach Post

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