Executions follow precise procedures
Unless he asks for a last-minute stay, condemned inmate Lawrence Colwell Jr. will be led through a submarine-type door into the Nevada State Prison’s half-century-old death chamber and be executed at 9 p.m. Friday.
The procedures to be followed provide for a final meal, coffee, cigarettes or a cigar if requested in a “last-night” cell just outside the tiny death chamber. The entire execution area, which includes two last-night cells and a viewing room for witnesses, is so small it’s difficult for people to move around.
Colwell will be able to send out last letters to his family and reporters, and possibly make some final phone calls. He also can be visited by the chaplain, warden or prison director, and give away any personal items to other inmates. A visit from his mother, Ruby Culp, also is scheduled.
The condemned man gets a new set of prison denims. There has been one exception in 2001: Sebastian Bridges, the last man to be executed in Nevada, wore a suit.
Colwell hasn’t made that request. So far, he has asked for a haircut and to have his teeth cleaned before he dies, prison spokesman Fritz Schlottman said.
To guard against suicide attempts, a “death watch” guard keeps an eye on the convict at all times. Colwell can’t have any electrical items, such as a radio or television, in his cell although they can be placed in the corridor outside the cell. Colwell has asked to use his television, which has been in storage.
A few hours before the execution, Colwell will be pre-medicated with a sedative to discourage last-minute resistance.
About half an hour before the execution, Colwell will be brought into the 9-by-12-foot, beige-painted room where he’s strapped to a gurney with eight automobile seat belts. If he can’t or won’t walk to the death room, he will be carried in on a stretcher.
Looking up, Colwell will be able to see two bare light bulbs and the old exhaust pipe that was used to fill the room with cyanide gas until the Legislature discontinued the practice in 1983. If he turns his head, Colwell will see a heart monitor.
Through a three-panel window on his right he can see the nine witnesses required by law plus a dozen or so other witnesses who will be standing in a 13-by-20-foot viewing room.
Behind him, a one-way mirror hides the faces of two prison employees in a closet-sized “executioners” room.” Unless the red phone outside the death chamber brings last-minute legal relief, the prison employees will pump three injections through tubes running out of the wall and into the prisoner’s veins.
The first is an overdose of a “downer” that can cause death. Another stops breathing, and a third stops the heart.
A few minutes later, a doctor pronounces the inmate dead, shades on the death chamber windows are pulled down, the needles are removed from his arm, and the body is transported to a local mortuary.
Prison officials had hoped to replace the old chamber, once described by Nevada State Prison Warden Mike Budge as “almost medieval,” but the 2003 Legislature didn’t fund the project.
Two and possibly three other locations at the prison were in use before the current chamber was first used in 1950 to execute James Williams for the murder of a co-worker in Elko.
Twenty condemned men have died in the chamber since. Those executions are among 51 at the state prison since 1901, when it was designated as the location for all executions.
Jesse Bishop, convicted of murder in a Las Vegas casino robbery, was the last person to be executed in the chamber by lethal gas, in 1979. Since then, all executions have been by lethal injection.
Bishop and the other condemned men who followed him were “table jumpers,” guard parlance for inmates who didn’t resist as they were led to the death chamber and strapped into a chair or onto the gurney that’s now used.
Bridges’ execution, on April 21, 2001, was the most bizarre in recent years. Wearing his brown, double-breasted Pierre Cardin suit and shiny, new black shoes, he appeared calm at first, but then broke down, sobbing and screaming, “You want to kill me like a dog.”
Still he wouldn’t appeal. Had he done so, even at the last minute, the execution would have been called off.