Nevada Plans To Use Fentanyl In Next Death Row Execution

By Keri Blakinger 09/06/17

The November execution will be the state’s first in more than a decade, but experts say the new drug combo featuring fentanyl doesn't make sense.

One man sitting on a bed in a small room of a dark prison.

After setting an execution date with no lethal injection drugs in stock, Nevada last month announced a solution to its death penalty dilemma—a three-drug protocol using fentanyl and Valium. 

The decision to use this particular combination of narcotics—along with a muscle relaxant called cisatracurium—may be a previously untried approach to carrying out capital punishment. 

Scott Dozier’s November execution will be the state’s first in more than a decade, but experts say the new drug combination does not have a clear explanation. “It doesn’t make much sense; you don’t need Valium if you have fentanyl,” New York University professor of emergency medicine Susi Vassallo told the Marshall Project. 

Valium overdoses can be fatal and the lethality of fentanyl is readily apparent in light of the nation’s ongoing opioid overdose epidemic. But cisatracurium is also a paralytic and if the short-acting fentanyl doesn’t cause death, the prisoner could potentially appear unconscious but in fact be aware as he suffocates. “The paralytic is only going to disguise whether the fentanyl is being administered properly,” Vassallo said. 

Emory University anesthesiologist Joel B. Zivot said the Valium and fentanyl combo may be an attempt to mask the condemned man’s awareness of his own suffocation. “The fentanyl takes away pain, and the Valium takes away anxiety,” he said. “Both drugs are limited in their ability to do that, and of course neither is designed to block the pain or anxiety of death. So that’s just a show.”

But even as his lawyers demand more information on the new process, Dozier—who spent roughly a year convincing the state to kill him—has consistently dismissed concerns about botched and painful lethal injections in Ohio, Arizona and elsewhere.

When a judge asked him earlier this year about potential problems with the drugs and the possibility of a “painful or protracted” execution, he blew off the concern with a dark response. “Quite frankly, your honor, all those people ended up dead, and that’s my goal here,” he said.

The new injection protocol comes as states across the nation struggle to find ways to carry out their most severe punishment. Drug companies have become reluctant to allow their drugs to be used for executions, forcing states to turn to compounding pharmacies and other suppliers. In some cases, states have switched lethal injection protocols to favor more accessible drugs

Dozier’s death sentence stems from a 2002 slaying when he lured Jeremiah Miller to the Las Vegas strip in order to rob him of $12,000 that he planned to buy ephedrine with, one of the ingredients needed for making meth. After shooting Miller in the head, police say Dozier let him bleed out in a bathtub before dismembering him, stuffing his torso and some limbs into a suitcase, then tossing it in a dumpster. 

Afterward, Dozier’s friends started coming forward with tips about the case. One even told police he’d spotted a body holding its own head inside Dozier’s hotel room. A jailhouse snitch alleged that he’d helped Dozier bury a man in the middle of the Arizona desert in 2001—and he led investigators to a dismembered body. Dozier was convicted in the Copper State case before he was transferred back to Nevada to stand trial for the would-be meth-maker’s slaying.

After nearly a decade on Nevada’s death row, last year Dozier sent a handwritten letter to the judge begging to end the appeals process and be put to death. 

But not long before the judge approved that request and signed a death warrant, Nevada’s stash of its two-drug injection protocol expired, forcing the state to get creative. 

In 2016, the state had tried to restock by putting in 247 requests to pharma companies asking for midazolam, a sedative Nevada planned to use in combination with the opioid hydromorphone. Although that particular drug combination had resulted in grisly death spectacles in Ohio and Arizona, ultimately the state wasn’t able to find more of the drugs and turned instead to its recently announced three-drug protocol. 

And now, barring any last-minute legal maneuvering, that’s the combination of drugs that will be used on Nov. 14, when Dozier is scheduled to meet his fate in the Ely State Prison death chamber.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.