STARKE, Fla. - In an execution that will likely fuel the controversy over Florida's death penalty law, the state this morning put to death a Miami-Dade County man convicted of the brutal rape and murder of an 11-year-old Hialeah girl more than 15 years ago. Rigoberto Sánchez-Velasco became the fifth inmate to "volunteer" to be executed since 1987. His was the first execution in Florida in 11 months; most executions have been put on hold while the state Supreme Court reviews Florida's death penalty law.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m., Sánchez, 43, was put to death by an anonymous executioner who pushed the plungers on three syringes full of lethal chemicals.
The Cuban refugee was declared dead at 9:39 a.m.
His death sets the stage for next week's planned execution of Aileen Carol Wournos, a serial killer and also a volunteer. Her decade-long case has received international media attention and has been the subjects of at least three books.
Because Sánchez and Wournos had fired their lawyers and vociferously resisted any attempts to save their life, Gov. Jeb Bush signed their death warrants even while other death penalty cases have not moved forward during the review of the law.
The governor repeatedly said that Sánchez and Wournos differed from other Death Row inmates because they wanted their death sentences carried out.
Death penalty foes have accused the tough-on-crime governor of reelection politics because he signed the death warrants just weeks before the Nov. 5 elections.
Sánchez was put to death about 15 hours after eating his last meal, a platter of chicken fried rice, fish filets, avocado salad, cheesecake and milk.
He was condemned for the December 1986 slaying of Kathy Encenarro, who he was babysitting. The 11-year-old was the daughter of his girlfriend, Marta Molina, who was at work.
While he was in prison, Sánchez was also involved in the stabbing deaths of two other inmates, but Wednesday's execution was for the Encenarro killing.
Death penalty opponents, like Abe Bonowitz, director of Floridians for an Alternative to the Death Penalty, decried Wednesday's execution and accused Bush of playing politics.
The Florida Supreme Court, wrestling with whether a U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated Arizona's death penalty law may also affect Florida's law, postponed the executions of two men earlier this year and Bush postponed the execution of a third. That man, Robert Trease, was at the time also a "volunteer" although he has recanted that position and now seeks to save himself from execution.
The court's decision could affect many of Florida's 396 Death Row inmates, since the Florida law is similar but not identical to Arizona's.
In the Arizona decision, the high court said that juries, not judges must decide whether a defendant is sentenced to death. In Arizona, the jury determined whether the defendant was guilty or innocent, then a judge decided whether to impose the death penalty.
In Florida, a jury decides guilt or innocence then recommends whether the defendant should live or die. As in Arizona, the Florida judge has the final word.
Sánchez has never argued that the Arizona ruling applies in his case, state lawyers said. Neither has Wournos.
"The question is: How can you do this when you don't know whether the law is constitutional," Bonowitz said.
Bonowitz suggested that Florida Supreme Court justices may have been reluctant to step in on the eve of an election that includes a ballot measure asking voters whether to limit the court's power on death penalty cases.
"Why didn't the Florida Supreme Court step in and say, 'Wait a second. We're reviewing this,'" Bonowitz said.
The Florida Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops pleaded with Bush to spare Sánchez's life.
"We are troubled that he has volunteered for his execution," the bishops wrote. "We are troubled that the state will grant his wish, especially at this time of increasing confusion about our death penalty law, with growing numbers calling for a moratorium."
The execution would not ease the pain of the victim's family, the bishops said.
In papers filed with the Florida Supreme Court, Sánchez maintained that he was legally convicted and that he wanted to die.
''This court must not interfere or delay the legal process of my case or my sentence, which is to be carried out,'' he wrote. ``I hate people," the condemned man said during a hearing. "I don't likethem. I want to kill people. You understand!"
At Bush's request, three state-appointed psychiatrists examined Sanchez on Tuesday, then found that he was competent under Florida law to understand his circumstances. They said he realized that he was about to be put to death.