US judge in Nevada hears testimony on firing squad execution

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FILE - This Nov. 10, 2016, file photo provided by the Nevada Department of Corrections shows the then-newly completed execution chamber at Ely State Prison in Ely, Nev. A physician testifying as an expert in a condemned Nevada inmate’s bid not to be put to death told a federal judge Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, that execution by firing squad would be quick and “relatively painless.” (Nevada Department of Corrections via AP, File)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — A physician testifying as an expert in a condemned Nevada inmate’s bid not to be put to death told a federal judge Thursday that execution by firing squad would be quick and “relatively painless.”

However, Nevada law does not allow inmates to be shot to death and the method is not being considered in efforts by the top prosecutor in Las Vegas and state attorneys for the first execution in the state in more than 15 years.

Zane Michael Floyd's lawyers are required to offer an alternate method of execution while they ask U.S. District Judge Richard Boulware II to find Nevada's lethal injection plan unconstitutional. They argue the procedure drawn up by state prison officials and its never-before-used combination of drugs would produce an agonizing death.

Execution by firing squad “would be very quick,” Dr. James Williams said Thursday. Williams is an emergency physician at a hospital in Victoria, Texas, who has testified as a trial expert in federal court in the past.

“I don’t believe the condemned would feel anything that would approximate pain,” he told the judge.

South Carolina this year became the fourth state in the U.S. to allow execution by firing squad, joining Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah. The last condemned inmate shot to death in the nation was Ronnie Gardner in Utah in June 2010.

Related video: Two South Carolina inmates granted reprieve until firing squad formed

Floyd, 46, does not want to die. He was convicted in 2000 and sentenced for killing four people and wounding a fifth in a 1999 shotgun attack at a Las Vegas grocery store. He also was convicted of raping a woman before the deadly rampage.

His lethal injection was scheduled last July but has been delayed pending the outcome of his challenges in state and federal courts. 

Chief Deputy Nevada Attorney General Randall Gilmer said Wednesday the state wants to carry out Floyd’s execution by February, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported

Floyd also has appeals pending before the Nevada Supreme Court and the 9th U.S. District Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

His lawyers, deputy federal public defenders David Anthony and Brad Levenson, have tried this week to show the effect of the Nevada procedure and combination of three or four drugs would be inhumane.

Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist who teaches at Columbia University in New York, provided a written report to the court predicting “an extremely agonizing ... death” with drugs used to sedate and paralyze Floyd before “the excruciating pain of intravenous concentrated potassium” administered to stop his heart.

Testimony is scheduled to resume for at least three days beginning Dec. 16, with a minimum of one more defense expert and witnesses for the state. Boulware said Thursday he also is considering dates in January.

The judge has said he especially wants to hear from Nevada prisons chief Charles Daniels, the official with primary responsibility for carrying out an execution.

Nevada's chief state medical officer, Dr. Ihsan Azzam, is also scheduled to testify. However, his attorneys have told the judge that Azzam has had little contact with Daniels and no input in creating the Nevada execution procedure, or protocol.

The plan calls for the anesthetic ketamine, the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, the heart-stopping salt potassium chloride and perhaps a muscle paralytic called cisatracurium. The drug alfentanil might substitute for fentanyl and potassium acetate might substitute for potassium chloride, according to the protocol.

Nevada, like many of the 27 U.S. states with capital punishment, has had difficulty obtaining execution drugs from manufacturers that don't want to let their products be used in lethal injections. Three states — California, Oregon and Pennsylvania — have capital punishment moratoriums in place.

Floyd's lawyers accuse Nevada of trying to use a “novel” process amounting to “prohibited experimentation on a captive human subject" and of trying to keep secret how it was created.

No state has used ketamine or the fentanyl substitute in an execution, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. Potassium acetate, a salt also used as an aircraft deicer, was mistakenly used by Oklahoma in a 2015 lethal injection.

Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist who teaches at the medical and law schools at Emory University in Atlanta, testified Wednesday as an expert in Floyd’s defense. He said some of the drugs and the doses could cause Floyd’s lungs to fill with fluid, leading to an excruciating death by suffocation “akin to drowning.”

Zivot said autopsies following other executions have found prisoners’ lungs filled with fluid.

The last person put to death in Nevada was Daryl Mack in 2006 for a 1988 rape and murder in Reno. He asked for his sentence to be carried out.

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