The Nevada Supreme Court ordered a halt to the planned execution of condemned inmate William Castillo - just 90 minutes before he was to get a lethal injection for beating an elderly woman to death with a tire iron.
The high court ordered a last-minute stay following a hearing on a petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union to stop any executions pending the outcome of a U.S. Supreme Court review of
lethal injection methods.
Castillo, 34, imprisoned since 1996, had declined to file appeals on his own.
"It's stayed," said Nevada Corrections director Howard Skolnik, moments after getting a call from the Supreme Court on its order.
Nevada prison officials planned to execute Castillo with double doses of three drugs - amounts so strong that the first injection should cause him to immediately become unconscious.
Reno's Spanish-English Ahora newspaper signed onto the ACLU's petition, contending that the "chemical veil" produced by one of the lethal chemicals to be injected into Castillo is so powerful that it prevents anyone from witnessing actual effects of the injection.
Lee Rowland, the ACLU lawyer who argued the case Monday before
the Supreme Court, welcomed the decision.
"Clearly, this was the right thing to do, legally and morally," she said. "We are heartened that this decision will bring Nevada in line with the rest of the country, which has decided to await guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court."
The move by the ACLU followed its unsuccessful efforts to get the state Pardons Board to halt Castillo's execution. Gov. Jim Gibbons, who chairs that board, said through a spokeswoman that the execution should proceed.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Sept. 25 to take a hard look at the method of lethal injection most states use. The high court will hear a challenge early next year from two inmates in Kentucky who claim that lethal injection as practiced by that state amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Executions in at least 10 states have been halted as a result of the litigation over lethal injections.
The injections, devised as a humane alternative to electrocution and the gas chamber, have come under attack in recent years amid reports that the three-drug cocktail doesn't always work as quickly as intended and that inmates are subjected to excruciating pain before they die.
Nevada's lethal injection formula includes sodium thiopental, a "downer" that would have made Castillo unconscious and can cause death, followed by pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant that paralyzes the lungs, and a third chemical, potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
In the ACLU's petition, attorney Lee Rowland said the doubling of the pancuronium bromide would make Castillo look serene - and that's a violation of a constitutional First Amendment right to witness the actual effects of an execution.
The violation occurs because the person getting the injection "portrays a look of serenity regardless of what the inmate is actually experiencing," Rowland said.
Castillo was sentenced to die for the 1995 beating death of Isabelle Berndt, 86, in Las Vegas after working on a roofing job at her home and finding a hidden house key. He and a female companion returned, burglarized the home and murdered Berndt.
Castillo set the home on fire to destroy evidence, but he later admitted the murder to a co-worker and confessed to police. His companion in the burglary and murder was Michelle Platou, now serving a life term with the possibility of parole.
Twelve men, all but one of whom refused appeals, have been executed in Nevada since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for
capital punishment to resume in 1976.
Daryl Linnie Mack, 47, was the last man to die in Nevada by lethal injection. He was executed April 26, 2006, for the rape and murder of a Reno woman - a crime he denied committing. Mack was the first Nevada convict to be executed based solely on DNA evidence. He also was the first black convict to be executed in Nevada since capital punishment was reinstated.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)