Tuesday, 16 October 2007

State justices halt inmate's execution

The Rev. Charles Durante of St. Teresa of Avila Church in Carson City leads a group of more than 50 people in prayer Monday outside the Nevada State Prison. Although death row inmate William Castillo was given a stay of execution, the crowd continued to pray, sing and stand for peace. “We stand here for peace, nonviolently, and for the end of the death penalty,” Durante said.


Death row inmate William Castillo seemed "very disappointed" Monday night that the Nevada Supreme Court canceled his execution about 90 minutes before he was scheduled to have a lethal injection.

"He asked if it was possible to get more medication to calm him," Nevada Department of Corrections Director Howard Skolink said of Castillo's reaction. "He wanted something to take the edge off."

The court convened at 4 p.m. to hear arguments and about 7 p.m. stayed the execution and gave the American Civil Liberties Union and the state attorney general 20 days to file briefs regarding the ACLU's last-minute request that the execution method is unconstitutional because the drugs masks the inmate's reaction, denying news media the First Amendment right to report the actual effects of the injection.

The ACLU petition came on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court review of the constitutionality of lethal injection methods in a Kentucky case.

Lee Rowland, the ACLU coordinator in Northern Nevada and the lawyer who argued the case, termed the decision "clearly correct legally and morally."

"Now, we are charged with convincing the Nevada Supreme Court that this stay should remain in place until the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled," she said. "This will put us in line with the rest of the country in awaiting guidance from the court as to whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment."

Castillo, 34, who has been imprisoned since 1996, had declined to file appeals of his own.
"The elderly relatives of the victims had hoped for closure, and they didn't get it tonight," Skolink, who told media of the court's decision, said at the prison in Carson City. "The inmate had prepared himself for the execution, and now it will be at least 60 days before he's going to know what happened to him."

Castillo was sentenced to death for the tire-iron beating of Isabelle Berndt, 86, a teacher who lived in Las Vegas. His female accomplice is serving a term of life with parole.
Two of Berndt's elderly relatives had driven to the prison, were told of the cancellation and never went inside.

Skolink said Berndt's family said they were going to ask the state supreme court and ACLU for their travel expenses for a "trip that need not have been made."

Castillo family members were not at the prison Monday night.

About 50 people chanted in protest against the death penalty. Some carried signs that said: "Every Human Life is Sacred," "Why Do We Kill People Who Kill People to Show that Killing People is Wrong?" and "We Remember and Pray for Isabelle."

Earlier, Castillo had taken a Valium to calm his nerves, talked on the phone with his family and had his last meal: a cheeseburger, a half gallon of Dreyer's pralines and almond ice cream and three root beers.

Skolink said Castillo was in a pleasant mood with the staff and felt bad for asking for an additional piece of cheese on his burger, which he got. The food was prepared by prison staff.
The protesters huddled across the street from the prison, holding candles near parked police cars. The Rev. Charles Durante of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Carson City read a history of Castillo's legal case and said that he had suffered abuse as a child.

"What else?" Durante asked the group. "We need to take the energy we have that made us come out here and move it to work for change. Send an e-mail to your legislators or our brilliant governor. We don't want this in our state.

"We don't need the death penalty."

The stay pleased the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which filed a separate last-minute petition to block Castillo's execution and one of another death row inmate, Pedro Rodriguez, who has a pending appeal. Coalition President Nancy Hart said it didn't matter that Castillo wanted to die and wasn't fighting his death sentence.

"In general, our focus is on the process," she said. "It's about unconstitutionality, not about what he wants to do."

Hart attended the court hearing and said the justices did not explain their decision.
"I'm sure (Castillo) had a hard day and is not happy we intervened against his wishes, but it's important for people to follow the law and Constitution," she said. "It's not about him. It's not about what he wants. After he gets over his disappointment, I hope he appeals."

Also standing in the cold protesting the death penalty was Sister Marie McGloin of St. Teresa of Avila and Ruth Gordon. They said they knew it was possible the execution could be stayed before they arrived to protest.

"We as a state need to look at what we're doing," Gordon said. "I wouldn't want life in prison, and it was a horrible crime, but that doesn't mean we have a right to assist his suicide."
McGloin said killing Castillo would not bring back his victim.

"Why are we killing people to show that killing people is wrong?" Gordon asked. "Why don't we get it?"
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Sept. 25 to take a hard look at the method of lethal injection most states use. The high court will hear a challenge early next year from two inmates in Kentucky who claim that lethal injection as practiced by that state amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Executions in at least 10 states have been halted as a result of the litigation over lethal injections.

The injections, devised as a humane alternative to electrocution and the gas chamber, have come under attack in recent years amid reports that the three-drug cocktail doesn't always work as quickly as intended and that inmates are subjected to excruciating pain before they die.
Nevada's lethal injection formula includes sodium thiopental, a "downer" that would have made Castillo unconscious and can cause death, followed by pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant that paralyzes the lungs, and a third chemical, potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

In the ACLU's petition, Rowland said the doubling of the pancuronium bromide would make Castillo look serene -- and that's a violation of a constitutional First Amendment right of reporters and other witnesses to observe the actual effects of an execution.
The violation occurs because the person getting the injection "portrays a look of serenity regardless of what the inmate is actually experiencing," Rowland said.

Castillo worked on a roofing job at Berndt's home and found a hidden house key. He and a female companion returned, burglarized the home and murdered Berndt.

Castillo set the home on fire to destroy evidence, but he later admitted the murder to a co-worker and confessed to police. His companion in the burglary and murder was Michelle Platou, now serving a life term with the possibility of parole.

Twelve men, all but one of whom refused appeals, have been executed in Nevada since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for capital punishment to resume in 1976.

Daryl Linnie Mack, 47, was the last man to die in Nevada by lethal injection. He was executed April 26, 2006, for the rape and murder of a Reno woman -- a crime he denied committing. Mack was the first Nevada convict to be executed based solely on DNA evidence. He also was the first black convict to be executed in Nevada since capital punishment was reinstated.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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