AT 8AM Australian eastern time on Friday, the state of Florida will inject convicted murderer Mark Asay with a lethal cocktail of drugs.

The first, etomidate, knocks the prisoner unconscious; the second, rocuronium bromide, paralyses the inmate; the third, potassium acetate, stops his heart.

The execution - the state's first in 18 months - has become hugely politicised, sparking an outcry from human rights organisation Amnesty International and even condemnation from the inventor of one of the drugs that will be used to kill him..

Here's why the life of a proven killer has split a state down the middle.

Mark Asay, a 53-year-old white supremacist, has been sitting on death row for 29 years.

Mark Asay is to die by lethal injection after 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, 2017. Asay was convicted by a jury of two racially motivated, premeditated murders in Jacksonville in 1987. (Florida Department of Corrections via AP)
Mark Asay is to die by lethal injection after 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, 2017. Asay was convicted by a jury of two racially motivated, premeditated murders in Jacksonville in 1987. (Florida Department of Corrections via AP)

His slow march to death began one night during the summer of 1987 when he, his brother Robbie and a friend named Bubba headed to the centre of Florida's largest city, Jacksonville, in search of prostitutes.

When he saw Robbie talking to an African American man, Mr Asay spewed racial slurs at the man and shot him.
The man, Robert Lee Booker, fled the scene but was later found dead in an alley.

Mr Asay told Bubba he had shot Mr Booker because "you gotta show a n***** who is boss".

Later in the night, the men found someone named Renee who agreed to be paid for oral sex. However, Renee turned out to be a man named Robert McDowell who was dressed as a woman.

Mr Asay ended up shooting Mr McDowell in the chest six times. He later said Mr McDowell had once cheated him out of $10 in a drug deal and he wanted to get even.

Mr Asay was convicted and sentenced to death in 1988. A series of appeals in the 1990s and legal challenges to the Florida death penalty in the 2000s have delayed Mr Asay's execution.

But that is all set to end on Thursday.


Florida has executed 92 prisoners since 1976 making it the fourth biggest judicial killer in the US behind Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma.

The US Supreme Court stopped Florida's state-sanctioned executions in January 2016 when it ruled that its system of capital sentencing was unconstitutional because it gave judges - not juries - the final say on whether a convict would be put to death.

The state's pro-death-penalty governor Rick Scott responded quickly, introducing new legislation to get around the ruling.

Now, the death penalty can proceed if a jury agrees unanimously to impose the sentence.

When the new law was signed in March, state attorney Aramis Ayala announced she would use her discretionary power to stop the state from seeking death sentences.

The interior of the lethal injection facility
The interior of the lethal injection facility AP Photo/Eric Risberg

She concluded that after "painstaking thought and consideration", the death penalty was "not in the best interests of the community" or "the best interests of justice".

She said death sentences were expensive, racially discriminatory and not effective as a deterrent to others.

Mr Scott was unimpressed with Ms Ayala's decision, and used his executive authority to circumvent her and reassign death penalty cases to her colleague, state attorney Brad King, who was more inclined towards state-sanctioned killings.

Since Ms Ayala was replaced, the governor has directed 27 capital murder cases to his preferred prosecutor.

"Here are two officials taking very different approaches to the overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is a failed policy," Amnesty International Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas said.

"One says drop it, it is a waste of resources, prone to discrimination, arbitrariness and error. The other says crank up the machinery of death.

"One is acting consistently with international human rights principles. The other is not."

Mr Asay's case is more controversial given the racial issues at play in the crime. Judge James Perry, himself an African American, noted this when Mr Asay unsuccessfully appealed his death penalty in the Florida Supreme Court last year.

"Asay will be the first white person executed for the murder of a black person in this state," he said.

"This sad statistic is a reflection of the bitter reality that the death penalty is applied in a biased and discriminatory fashion, even today."

For the record, experts say the research on the death penalty is conclusive: There is next to no evidence anywhere in the world that the sentence deters crime of any kind.

All of this leads to the imminent execution of Mr Asay, the first person to be scheduled to be put to death since the Supreme Court ruling.


One of the drugs that will be used in Mr Asay's lethal injection is etomidate, an anaesthetic invented by Janssen Pharmaceutica in the 1960s.

Janssen is a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and the pharmaceutical giant has taken the unusual step to speak out against it being used to kill prisoners.

"Janssen discovers and develops medical innovations to save and enhance lives. We do not support the use of our medicines for indications that have not been approved by regulatory authorities," spokesman Greg Panico told The Washington Post.

"We do not condone the use of our medicines in lethal injections for capital punishment."

The use of etomidate - described as a fast-acting "hypnotic drug" - is even more controversial given that it has never before been used as part of lethal executions in the US.

Mr Asay has exhausted his legal options and his fate is all but sealed - but the Florida executions won't stop with him.

Now the legal roadblocks have been cleared, attention will turn to the other 362 inmates on death row in Florida.