A recent U.S. District Court decision that temporarily blocked executions in California could affect Nevada because both states use the same lethal injection procedure - described as cruel and unusual punishment by death penalty foes.
The method for both states is to give condemned inmates three
injections. The first, sodium thiopental, makes them unconscious;
the second, pancuroniam bromide, paralyzes the lungs; and the
third, potassium chloride, stops the heart.
Variations on the life-ending chemical dosages are used in 35
other states that have made lethal injections their method of
execution in capital cases.
Assistant Federal Defender Michael Pescetta said the court
ruling in the case of condemned California death row inmate Michael
Morales will be used to bolster the "unconstitutional cruel and
unusual punishment" argument that he has raised in many Nevada
execution cases over the years.
"We are alleging this in every capital case we have, and now we
can point to the California federal court ruling," Pescetta said.
"The judge made it clear that the constitutional protections in
the California protocol are not adequate."
Glen Whorton, head of Nevada's prison system, said he's
"waiting to see what goes on over there" in California before
deciding whether any change in this state's execution method is
"When something is finalized there, we will probably look at
ours," he said. "We're just watching the situation to see what
Chief Deputy Attorney General Conrad Hafen said he expects that
Nevada death penalty foes will cite the decision in California by
U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel.
"But it's going to require that a court in Nevada make a
specific finding that our procedures in fact constitute cruel and
unusual punishment," Hafen said. "And an evidentiary hearing
might very well show a contrary conclusion."
Fogel's ruling "certainly started us down on a different path
to consider this issue," Hafen said. "But at this point that's
something happening in California and it doesn't necessarily impact
what we're doing in Nevada."
Because of Fogel's ruling, California has proposed altering the
way drugs are administered in executions. The new plan is to
continually drip a sedative into prisoners to make sure they don't
become conscious during the process and feel too much pain as they
Hearings had been set for May 2 to determine whether the state's
current method amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Those
hearings will now focus on the new procedure.
A week before Morales' scheduled execution, Fogel recommended
that California employ two anesthesiologists to ensure Morales'
The anesthesiologists, citing ethical concerns, bowed out. Fogel
then ordered a licensed medical professional, instead of a prison
staffer, to administer the injection. No specialist stepped
forward, and that essentially created a moratorium on capital
punishment in California.
The new protocol - like the old one - still wouldn't require
licensed medical professionals to ensure no mistakes in the
injection procedure. Nevada, in addition to using the same
chemicals, also doesn't require the involvement of such
professionals - other than the prison doctor who declares the
Fogel ordered the changes in Morales' execution after studying
the medical logs of executed inmates and finding that there were
"substantial questions" about whether prisoners were conscious
and feeling unacceptable levels of pain once a paralyzing agent was
The U.S. Supreme Court has never addressed whether lethal
injection amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
No executions currently are scheduled in Nevada, where 84 men
now are on death row. Eleven men have been executed in Nevada
following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in 1976 that cleared the
way for capital punishment to resume in this country. Ten of those
who died in Nevada were inmates who declined to file appeals that
would have kept them alive.