CARSON CITY — State lawmakers questioned Corrections Department Director Greg Cox on Wednesday about the need to build a $700,000 execution chamber at Ely State Prison.
Cox defended the project, saying he probably will have only a 30-day notice if one of Nevada’s 83 death-row inmates loses an appeal and faces execution by lethal injection. Also, an inmate could waive his appeals and be executed in a very short time frame.
“So we look at it from the standpoint of a 30-day window that we have to be able to move forward with this process,” he said.
Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, D-Las Vegas, asked if there is an immediate need for the execution chamber.
“So, arguably, if this 30-day window reference, if that were to occur 30 days from today, are you telling us that you could not carry out an execution at the Nevada State Prison site?” he asked.
Cox said he could carry out an execution at the existing chamber at the now-closed prison in the capital city, but that litigation from attorneys representing an inmate scheduled for execution would be expected because of issues with the facility. He declined to be specific because of the anticipated legal challenges.
But he said the litigation would be significant because of issues with the physical plant, including compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The current execution chamber is an old gas chamber on the third floor of the prison. There is no elevator access, so a disabled inmate facing execution would have to be carried to the last night cell across from the chamber.
The viewing area is cramped and provides little room for official witnesses, media representatives, a religious leader, victims’ family members, attorneys and others who choose to or are required to attend executions.
Cox said any new execution chamber probably would face litigation too but not to the degree the existing facility would see from the federal public defender’s office.
The last execution, by lethal injection, occurred at Nevada State Prison on April 26, 2006, when Daryl Mack was put to death. Mack was executed for the rape and murder of a Reno woman, Betty Jane May, in 1988. Cox said the project is needed to follow state law. Ely is an appropriate location because that is where the death row population is housed.
Gus Nuñez, administrator of the state Public Works Division, said the cost for the project, a remodeling of an administrative area at the prison of about 1,900 square feet, is not unreasonable.
It will include the execution area, separate witness viewing areas, a last-night cell for the condemned inmate, among other features. It will also require new walls and the reconfiguration of heating and cooling systems, lighting, sprinklers and other elements, he said.
The agency a few years ago planned a new stand-alone execution chamber at a prison that was never built in Southern Nevada, and that cost estimate was about $5 million, Nuñez said.
The project was reviewed by a joint subcommittee of the Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees.
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