The debate over drugs used to execute inmates via lethal injection across states in America has been circulating for some time, with each new case of an execution going wrong only adding to the contention. In 2016, convicted double murderer Scott Dozier, who is awaiting the death penalty in Nevada, told a court judge he was going to drop all appeals against his conviction and asked to be executed. An unusual move not seen often amongst America’s death row population. While Dozier is happy for his execution to go ahead, he is not receptive to the drugs the Nevada Department of Corrections plans to use to kill him.

Convicted double-killer Scott Dozier

Convicted double-killer Scott Dozier.

Scott Dozier was due to be executed by lethal injection on 14 November 2017 at the Ely State Prison in Nevada. On 25 April 2002, a maintenance man found the dismembered body of a young man stuffed inside a suitcase in the dumpster of the Copper Sands apartment complex in Las Vegas. The victim was 22-year-old Jeremiah Miller, believed to have travelled to Las Vegas from his home in Phoenix, to meet 36-year-old Scott Dozier on a promise of being introduced to a dealer who would sell him a chemical drug used in the making of methamphetamine, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in 2007.

Prosecutors at Dozier’s murder trial told jurors that Dozier murdered Miller by shooting him in the head in order to rob him before he dismembered his body. Miller was identified through tattoos on his shoulder with his head, arms, calves, and feet never being found. After Dozier’s arrest, a former friend came forward to police and told them he had helped Dozier bury a body in a desert in Carefree, Arizona the year previously. When police searched the area they found the dismembered body of 26-year-old Jasen Greene, killed according to the friend because Dozier feared he would expose him as a drug dealer.

In 2005, Scott Dozier was found guilty of second-degree murder in the case of Jasen Greene, before facing a second charge of murder for the death of Jeremiah Miller in 2007. Along with his 22-year sentence for Greene’s killing, Dozier was found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of Jeremiah Miller.

According the Death Penalty Information Center, 3% of the 8,776 executions carried out in the United States between 1890 and 2010 went wrong with lethal injection being the method that most often fell into this category.

After Dozier’s request for his sentence to be carried out, the state of Nevada, who hasn’t executed an inmate in 11 years, was put in the position of finding a drug combination to use in his execution.

The recent controversy surrounding the drugs used in executions has led to many pharmacies refusing to supply them. Calls that the drug combinations used in lethal injections are inhumane after a number of prolonged and painful executions have been getting louder. Amnesty International USA reports that “Some executions have lasted between 20 minutes to over an hour and prisoners have been seen gasping for air, grimacing and convulsing.”

In August 2017, the Nevada Department of Corrections announced in a press release that in preparation for the execution of Dozier and in accordance with the judgement that death must be inflicted by lethal injection they would use diazepam as a sedative, fentanyl to depress breathing, and cisatracurium as a muscle paralytic in the 3-drug combination to kill him.

The reaction to this choice of drugs has been surprise from many scientists and civil rights professionals. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid drug that is behind the deaths of thousands of Americans who are now able to get hold of it on the streets, often mixed in with heroin in lethal doses. It is a drug that has been linked the American singer Prince on 21 April 2016 who is believed to have accidentally overdosed on it causing his death. Josh Bloom, the Senior Direction of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences for the American Council on Science and Health told CNN:

You got something that’s killing hundreds of people a day across the United States, and you got prisons who can’t get death penalty drugs, so they’re turning to the drug that’s killing hundreds of people across the United States.

It is a suggested drug combination that has never been used before in the United States for an execution. Aside from fentanyl, the drug of particular concern is cisatracurium, a chemical which causes paralysis in the human body. Depending on the order and dose the other two drugs are given there is a risk that such paralysis would mean Dozier could remain conscious and suffering but be unable to alert officials or would officials be able to notice his distress. The Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada told CNN, “You’re essentially trying to kill this person by paralyzing them to death, which sounds horrific, and it’s certainly not in our perspective compliant with the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which is no cruel or unusual punishment.”

The execution of Scott Dozier is now on hold until a final decision is made on the use cisatracurium. Referred to the Nevada Supreme Court, it is possible it will be concluded that the simple two-drug combination, if administered at the right doses, will be enough to kill Dozier without introducing the potential complications of a muscle paralytic. No doubt other States will be watching with interest awaiting this decision. For Scott Dozier himself, he told a friend after he requested his death sentence be carried out, “This has been a long time coming, and I finally just got fed up with it.”