The one death row execution that still haunts priest who has watched 18 men die

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Death row chaplain Rev Dale Recinella has witnessed 18 executions – but there is one that stands out as particularly ghastly and haunting.

The Catholic priest watched in horror as Angel Diaz writhed in pain during a botched lethal injection that lasted 34 minutes – twice as long as it should have.

It was clear the convicted murderer suffered as horrific chemical burns turned the skin on his arms black and caused the outer layer to tear away, exposing pink and white flesh.

Mr Recinella is a death penalty opponent, but as a spiritual adviser to inmates such as Diaz he volunteers to watch them die on a gurney to offer some form of comfort to them.

The 67-year-old was a “money-grubbing” Wall Street finance lawyer until a brush with death saw him abandon his successful career for a higher calling.



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Rev Dale Recinella and his wife Susan (left) recently had an audience with Pope Francis

 

It’s a grim task, watching a convicted killer die after being strapped to a gurney and injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs.

Especially when that inmate has become a friend over the past 15 to 20 years and considers you a father or a brother.

Mr Recinella, who had an audience with Pope Francis while campaigning for the death penalty to be abolished, told Mirror Online: “When you’ve known somebody for that long you’ve allowed yourself to really care about him like a brother, like family.

“I’ve had guys hug me in the death house and say ‘you’re the father I never had’, ‘you’re the brother I never had’.

“‘If I had a friend like you on the other side I never would have come here’.



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Mr Recinella has watched 18 executions from a witness room

“And then you go and watch them be killed. It’s not a healthy thing.

“It’s better for me to be there than not be there.

“That’s what I am there for, to become family.

“I’ve had to learn to deal with my trauma from watching people I love be killed.”

Few outsiders are allowed see death row for themselves. Inside, it’s more depressing that one could imagine, according to Mr Recinella.

The chaplain, who visits grief counsellors to help him through his own trauma, said: “It stinks to high heaven because it is so depressing.


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“They don’t believe there’s anything on the other side of the line. That’s rough. I believe there is.

“I’m not going to do any man any good by adding to the depression.

“I’ve got to prepare myself to go in there and bring something that is going to make his day better.

“I can come in and try to to help him find a way to keep his spirits up, to focus on the things in his life that are good and really matter to him, and to keep his world bigger than [a cell measuring] six feet by nine feet.”

Mr Recinella spends between 40 and 60 hours a week offering spiritual advice to dozens of condemned prisoners in Florida.

He visits death row, where inmates spend years waiting for an execution date, and the death house, where they spend their final days and hours after the state’s governor signs their death warrant.



Angel Diaz
Convicted killer Angel Diaz’s botched execution lasted 34 minutes

He sees about 50 inmates – all men – every month. The day before he spoke to Mirror Online he spoke to 15 for 30 minutes each.

None of the women on death row has sought his spiritual advice.

“For the men they say it’s extremely important. Not only is it one on one time where they can talk about anything personal, but it also gets them out of the darn cell”, he said.

Some, like Diaz, ask him to be there for them when they are put to death at Florida State Prison in Starke.

Mr Recinella said: “I have never witnessed an execution by electric chair, thank the Lord.

“But I have witnessed a botched lethal injection and what I found out is there is not much difference between burning a human being to death alive from the outside in with electricity than burning a human being to death from the inside out with chemicals.

“I testified in a court case to try and ban executions in Florida because of what Angel suffered during the last 34 minutes of his life.”



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Mr Recinella has written three books and his latest has been translated

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Execution and the death penalty

Diaz, 55, was convicted of fatally shooting a strip club manager in 1979, but insisted he was innocent.

At his execution in 2006, needles that should have been inserted into his veins were pushed into the surrounding tissue, causing extensive chemical burns as the drugs were pumped into his body.

Two full doses were administered and the execution lasted 34 minutes instead of the usual 10 to 15.

Journalists who witnessed the execution said Diaz grimaced and tried to speak, and then turned his head and began to cough around the time he was expected to die.

He appeared to stop moving but then his body suddenly “jolted” in the 24th minute and he opened his eyes widely.

He was pronounced dead 10 minutes later.

It remains one of the worst botched lethal injections in the US. It forced then-governor Jeb Bush, the brother of then-president George W Bush, to temporarily suspend executions so Florida’s lethal injection protocol could be reviewed.



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Inside the death chamber at Florida State Prison in Starke

Mr Recinella landed the role after an electric chair execution went horribly wrong.

He said: “The priest that was doing this before me for 15 years had witnessed four electrocutions and in the last one in 1997 the man caught on fire in the chair and burned to death, screaming with flames jumping three feet out of his head.

“And that priest, who was an incredibly spiritual man, his health broke and he told the bishops ‘I can’t do this anymore’.

A prison chaplain since 1998, Mr Recinella, from Tallahassee, describes his unpaid work as “the most demanding volunteer role in the world”.

He has written three books about his experiences, including When We Visit Jesus in Prison: A Guide for Catholic Ministry, his most recent one.

Florida currently has almost 350 inmates on death row, and carries out about one to three executions most years.



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Mr Recinella spends up to 60 hours a week with death row inmates

There are three aspects to Mr Recinella’s ministry work in prison – the first being “cell front”, or going from cell to cell to speak to prisoners.

He said: “You’re standing on concrete for six or seven hours, there’s no air-conditioning, there’s no air movement.

“You’re with the guys at the cells. The thermal index this time of year is anywhere around 115F to 135F, and it’s very physically depleting.

“Two years ago, at the age of 65, my doctor said ‘you can’t do that anymore’.

“I trained a deacon to do that for me, and I turned over an army of volunteers to him and started focusing on the other two aspects.”

The second category is pastoral call-outs, where inmates request an appointment in a room that lawyers use to interview their clients.

Mr Recinella said: “The guards will escort the inmate from the cell to the call-out room and I will have 30 to 60 minutes with them behind a closed door.



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Mr Recinella has witnessed 18 executions in Florida

“There’s a glass wall, we’re under visual observation. I always assume everything is recorded even though they say it’s not. I wasn’t born yesterday.

“I tell the guys ‘don’t talk to me about your crime, don’t talk to me about anything that can be used in court’.”

The third aspect is what’s known as “death watch”, where inmates spend their final hours after their death warrant has been signed.

Mr Recinella said: “From the very first time I got here in ’98 guys started asking me ‘will you be there for me if my warrant gets signed?’ And, of course, I said ‘yes’.

“When a guy’s warrant is signed the state immediately, like within an hour, removes him from his death row cell and moves him to the death house at Florida State Prison.

“He’s in a cell exactly like his death row cell but he’s got three officers with an eye on him all the time.

“It’s highly monitored because if an inmate were to kill himself before the state executes him when he’s under an active warrant, the term that’s used is ‘cheating the state’ because he cheated the state out of the opportunity to legally kill him.”

“Brother Dale”, as he is known, has found that the best way to get through to the inmates and lighten the mood is to make fun of himself.



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Mr Recinella landed the role after an electric chair execution went horribly wrong

He said: “Fortunately or unfortunately, it is easier than it should be because i’m a klutz, and i’m short and i used to be pretty round.

“I use myself as the object of the jokes and they’ll really get into that, and usually the staff join in as well.

“Men want to stand up to the situation, not be overcome by it, and to be strong. That’s what guys do, and so laughing at a guy who is kind of funny because he is such a klutz works real well.”

He also tells them how he was almost killed by flesh-eating bacteria when he was a Wall Street finance lawyer in 1988.

He added: “I was done – the doctors said ‘the flesh eating bacteria has won, you will not survive midnight’.

“I went into a coma, but I survived.

“They love that story. I’ve had guys tell me ‘if God could save a worthless, money-grubbing Wall Street lawyer like you he’ll have no problem forgiving me’.”

On the day of an execution, the prisoner says goodbye to his family and has his last meal before he is joined by Mr Recinella.

The chaplain then sits in the front row of the witness room as the execution is carried out.

He said: “I can’t let myself feel anything. I get out to the parking lot and I get home and it usually takes hours to remove all the concrete steel I had to put around me to keep any feelings from coming out.

“And then it starts coming. You have to process it. That’s what the grief therapy is for, to uncork all of that.

“The feelings are ‘holy Toledo, why are we doing that [to inmates]?'”

Half of America’s 50 states still have the death penalty.

This year, California announced a moratorium on executions and New Hampshire abolished the practice 80 years after its last execution.

But US President Donald Trump announced that federal executions would resume.

Opponents argue the practice amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore violates the US Constitution.

Earlier this year, Mr Recinella had a private audience with Pope Francis, who has changed the Vatican’s teaching on the death penalty, saying it is no longer admissible under any circumstances.

Mr Recinella said of their 10-minute meeting: “I was awestruck. The man has a presence that matches his reputation for compassion and caring.”

The chaplain, who was joined by his wife, Susan, and an Italian translator, gave the pope copies of his latest book and his annual report on executions in the US.

Mr Recinella, who was on a book tour through Italy, said: “His questions were about the men on death row, what their conditions are, what their ability to function is.

“But i invited him to come to death row in Florida and meet his spiritual children.”



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