A Reprieve in Nevada Adds to Lethal-Injection Drama

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An eleventh-hour reprieve in Nevada last night for condemned murderer William Patrick Castillo marked the latest victory for opponents of the death penalty who do not regard lethal injection as the humane method of execution that its supporters say it is.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the subject in the coming months, and death penalty opponents plan to argue that the three-chemical cocktail used by most of the 37 states that carry out lethal injection immobilizes the condemned and hides the pain they experience before they die. They say the process violates the Eighth Amendment's ban against cruel and unusual punishment.

Under the procedure followed by most states, the condemned inmate is strapped to a gurney, sedated with sodium thiopental, injected with pancuronium bromide to collapse the diaphragm and lungs, and then administered potassium chloride to stop the heart. Death penalty opponents have argued for years that the procedure is a cold and painful way to kill people, and that even veterinarians do not recommend it in the euthanization of animals.

Condemned inmates are "alive all the way through the process, feeling pain until the bitter end," said Lisa McCalmont, a lawyer and consultant to the death penalty clinic at the University of California at Berkeley's law school.

State corrections officials say lethal injection is a sound, scientifically tested and suitable alternative to the electric chair. They assert that challenges to the method are often attempts by death penalty opponents to end capital punishment. Still, several states have modified lethal-injection protocols to address concerns raised in lawsuits.

The case before the Supreme Court originated in Kentucky, where inmates Ralph Baze and Thomas C. Bowling, both convicted of double murders, challenged the state's protocols, saying they violated federal and state constitutions.

The court must now determine the effectiveness of the drugs used by Kentucky, McCalmont said. With the high court set to hear the case, more than a dozen courts, state commissions and governors have delayed lethal injections. Among those waiting are Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, North Carolina and California.

Nevada joined that list last night, as its Supreme Court postponed all scheduled executions for the next 20 days. Castillo's death warrant is set to expire at week's end.

"It's really wonderful," Nancy Hart, president of the Nevada Coalition to End the Death Penalty, said after last night's court ruling. "This court did not want to stand out there and be the only state to go ahead with an execution."

Other states, such as Georgia, intend to go ahead with executions.

Nevada officials attempted to go forward with the Castillo case largely because Castillo waived the remainder of his appeals and asked to die rather than live on death row. The appeal that halted the lethal injection was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of those who witness executions and argued that the paralytic effect of the pancuronium bromide creates a false impression of the event.

Even if the court ultimately agrees with opponents of lethal injection, the opinion probably will not stop the method, many legal experts say. Rather, they predict, the court will demand that the federal government and states consider stricter and more uniform standards.

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