Nevada Department of Corrections lacks plan for executions
Sat May 12, 2012 06:35
Nevada Department of Corrections lacks plan for executions due to prison closure, drug shortage
May. 9, 2012 Written by Martha Bellisle
Four months after shutting down Nevada State Prison in Carson City, site of the state’s only death chamber, officials have no solid plan for carrying out executions and no access to a lethal injection drug.
As Nevada’s death row inmates continue to appeal their convictions and sentences, the Nevada Department of Corrections has continued to lose its ability to hold an execution.
Corrections officials shut down the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, site of the state’s only death chamber, early this year, and they have no solid plan in place for transporting and holding an inmate who is about to be executed, the Reno Gazette-Journal found.
In addition, one of the drugs used during a lethal injection has not been available for more than a year, and the state’s execution protocol has not been updated to address the drug shortage, the Gazette-Journal found.
The department plans to submit a bill draft request to the Legislature next year asking for $385,000 to build a new execution chamber at the Ely State Prison, said Steve Suwe, a department spokesman.
The Nevada Attorney General’s office sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder early in 2011 seeking help to deal with the lethal injection drug shortage, spokeswoman Jennifer Lopez said. But no resolution has been found.
“Should any executions be scheduled, we will do the best to help the Department of Corrections have the drugs necessary to carry out a lawful execution order,” Lopez said.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the lack of a solid plan could be problematic, especially if an inmate were to suddenly stop the appeals process and ask to be killed. Eleven of the 12 inmates executed in Nevada since 1976 “volunteered” to be executed.
“When it comes time, they just can’t say, ‘Trust us,’” Dieter said of corrections officials. “They have to have a very specific protocol. Either a state or federal court would want them to produce that information. They’ll want to make sure this isn’t done in a slipshod way.”
Although no inmates are close to the end of their appeals process, the state is not in a position to hold an execution should an inmate give up his appeals and “volunteer” to be killed, said Michael Pescetta, an assistant federal public defender in Las Vegas who works on death penalty cases.
“At this point, there are no execution dates scheduled in any Nevada capital case,” Pescetta said. “Until there is one scheduled, we don’t know what the position of the Department of Corrections will be.”
When asked if the department’s indecision impacts his ability to work on death row inmate cases, Pescetta said: “We don’t know if they have any plans to change the protocol or adopt a different method and we don’t know their plans for the execution chamber.”
“At this point, those are all open questions,” he said. “So it’s a very fluid situation right now.”
The last execution in Nevada took place in 2006. On Monday, lawyers for James Biela, sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Brianna Denison in 2008, argued before the Nevada Supreme Court that his convictions and death sentence should be dropped.
At present, 82 inmates live on Nevada’s death row. Edward Wilson, who pleaded guilty in the murder of Reno police officer James Hoff, has been there the longest, since Dec. 14, 1979.
Suwe said although all of the inmates were moved out of the Nevada State Prison, they’ve continued to maintain the area where the execution chamber is housed.
“We have maintenance staff that go up to the execution chamber and make sure it’s clean and orderly,” Suwe said. The department plans to hold a decommissioning ceremony for the prison May 18, he said.
In the past, when an inmate was about to be executed, he was first held in a segregated area at the prison several buildings away from the death chamber and then moved to a cell outside the chamber for his last meal. But since the building is closed, the department has not yet decided how they would physically handle an inmate who is brought from Ely State Prison, home of Nevada’s death row, to the execution chamber in Carson City.
“That has not been put on paper,” Suwe said of the inmate-movement plan. “But it’s an easy fix.”
Although some people testified at the Legislature last year that the Nevada State Prison’s pipes are leaking and corroded and the facilty couldn’t pass code, Suwe said the pipes in the execution chamber area are functioning and up to code.
When asked what the state plans to do about the lack of lethal injection drugs and the state’s execution protocol, Suwe said “it is currently being reviewed and revised.”
The current protocol states that an inmate would first be given 5 grams of sodium thiopental, a fast-acting barbiturate; followed by 20 milligrams of Pavulon, a muscle relaxer; and then potassium chloride, to stop the heart.
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