JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Family members surrounded Angel Nieves Diaz for likely the last time Wednesday as the death row inmate faced execution for fatally shooting a Miami topless club manager 27 years ago this month.
As his attorney pressed final appeals in the U.S. Supreme Court, Nieves' family members were gathering at Florida State Prison near Starke to say their last goodbyes to a man they know as a loving father, grandfather, brother and uncle. They claim the state is getting ready to unjustly execute him.
He was later be joined by Dale Recinella, a prison chaplain, and was to receive last rites from a priest, Jose Maniyangat.
"He is at peace with God. He just wants people to know he is innocent," said Solsirette Otero-Barahona of Orlando, who calls Nieves her uncle, although he is her father's first cousin.
Otero-Barahona said at one of her last visits with 55-year-old Nieves, he told her "You know I'm innocent. I know I'm innocent. God knows I'm innocent."
In an interview with Notiseis television broadcast Tuesday evening in Puerto Rico, Nieves said, "I feel at peace. Yes, nervous, but without fear because I feel close to God and that helps me feel good."
Funeral services are being planned for Nieves, who wants his body returned to his native Puerto Rico. A prayer service was being held Wednesday evening in front of a church in Old San Juan and family members celebrated Mass on Tuesday night in Maclenny.
"We are just overwhelmed. We love him so much and we are planning his burial," Otero said.
Officials in Puerto Rico, including Gov. Acevedo Vila and Senate President Kenneth D. McClintock, have written letters to Gov. Jeb Bush asking him to stop the execution. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, abolished capital punishment in 1929.
There are so many problems with Nieves' trial and appeals that the execution should be stopped, Otero said.
No one actually witnessed the shooting death of manager Joseph Nagy. Most of the patrons and employees had been confined to a restroom and a dancer hiding under the bar did not see who fired the shoots which killed Nagy, she said.
"Everyone has recanted. Fingerprints were not clear. There were no eyewitnesses and even the shooter says my uncle is an innocent man," Otero said.
The case remained unsolved for four years until 1983, when Nieves' girlfriend told police he was involved in the crimes. Angel "Sammy" Toro and Angel Nieves were charged with murder. A third man, "Willie," was never identified, according to a summary of his case by the Florida Commission on Capital Crimes.
At his trial, where he was forced to wear shackles, Nieves conducted his own defense, with the assistance of counsel. Toro cut a deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to life in prison.
The jury in Nieves' trial recommended he be sentenced to death by an 8-4 vote.
Barring a last-minute reprieve, Nieves would be the 21st man executed under th
e administration of Gov. Jeb Bush and the 64th inmate to die since Florida resumed executions in 1979 after a 15-year hiatus. It would be the fourth execution this year.
Nieves' prior record includes a second-degree murder conviction in his native Puerto Rico and escapes there and in Connecticut.
Nieves did not order a last meal, so he will be served Wednesday's prison of shredded turkey with taco seasoning, shredded cheese, rice, pinto beans, tortilla shells, apple crisp and ice tea, said Gretl Plessinger, a Department of Corrections, spokeswoman.
The court issues raised by Nieves included a challenge to Florida's method of lethal injection. The arguments are similar to those made earlier this year by three other death row inmates who all lost their appeals and were executed.
Each has argued that Florida's three-chemical method is unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment because it results in extreme pain that an inmate cannot express because one of the drugs is a paralyzing agent.