Oct 16, 2007 08:46 PM EDT
Executions here in Nevada and many other states are facing new scrutiny as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to examine the issue of cruel and unusual punishment. The latest chapter unfolded last night when the Nevada Supreme Court halted an execution at the 11th hour.
Justices voted to stay the execution of William Castillo following a petition by the ACLU and an emergency hearing. The 34-year-old Castillo, convicted of killing an elderly woman in Las Vegas more than 10 years ago is back in his cell at the Nevada State Prison.
The director of the Department of Corrections says this is the first time the court has intervened last minute, and says his staff is still recovering from the change.
"For our staff its very emotionally draining," Howard Skolnik said. "It takes a good month to prepare for the execution. The last two weeks are very demanding."
Skolnik says the Court's decision cost the Department of Corrections some $15,000.
Legal experts say, the Nevada Supreme Court is following a careful and conservative path in staying the execution.
The Court is trying to decide whether the method of execution used in Nevada and 36 other states, namely lethal injection, is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, even torture.
And until that is decided, experts say Nevada justices are being prudent in postponing this and other executions.
34-year-old William Castillo was convicted of killing an 86-year-old Las Vegas woman in 1996, robbing and beating her with a tire iron. He abandoned all legal appeals and was said to be disappointed that the Supreme Court intervened, and stopped the execution Monday night.
But the American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully filed for his stay, says its no longer about what Castillo wants.
"While it's unfortunate that he disagreed with our tactics," Lee Rowland of the ACLU said. "This isn't about an individual, it isn't about Mr. Castillo. It's about the power of the state to use methods that are unconstitutional."
"It is not his choice as to how to die," Gary Hengstler of the National Judicial College said. "And the state would not want to use what could be considered unlawful means of execution."
The debate hinges on whether the three-drug cocktail injected into a condemned inmate constitute cruel and unusual punishment or torture, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court is debating that issue and while justices consider it, at least ten other states have joined Nevada in putting executions on hold.
The ACLU filed the last-minute action after Nevada officials decided to add another drug to the mix that could mask signs of Castillo's suffering during the execution. But what of the victim's suffering?
The ACLU says this issue doesn't involved any particular case, victim or criminal. It's all about the law.
"When we as a country want to express that someone has violated a social contract and deserves punishment," Rowland said. "We treat those people humanely because that's the kind of nation we are: We're a nation of laws. So while there's no question about the cruelty of his crimes, there's also no question that we have the values of a society that prevent us from acting as our worst offenders do. There's no benefit in that."
This issue has been stayed by the State Supreme Court for at least 60 days, to allow both sides more time to argue. But the U.S. Supreme Court decision could take at least a few months, making it even more likely that this stay of execution will hold.