‘Life in prison isn’t a life’: A Nevada inmate whose execution was delayed is found dead in apparent suicide

Anticipating his death by lethal injection last summer, Scott Dozier said he didn’t expect the end of his life to have any higher significance.

“I don’t have any grand expectations,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a brief, prison-monitored phone call in July 2018. “I think it’s just done. I think it’s just black.”

Besides, the convicted double murderer said, the alternative was hardly so meaningful. “Life in prison isn’t a life,” he said. He urged the state to go ahead: “If people say they’re going to kill me, get to it.

Dozier, 48, was found dead Saturday at Ely State Prison — not in the new, $860,000 execution chamber where he had once been scheduled to die, but rather in his cell. Correctional officers in Ely, Nev., found him hanging from a bedsheet tied to an air vent, according to a release from the Nevada Department of Corrections emailed to The Washington Post.

His death by apparent suicide came six months after his planned execution was delayed for a second time. The discovery of his body on Saturday marked a grim new chapter in a yearslong battle over his execution, which has been intensified by the objections of drug companies that oppose the use of their products for capital punishment. The end of Dozier’s life is unlikely to mark the end of this dispute.

More than 7 percent of lethal injections nationally have been botched, according to Austin Sarat, a professor at Amherst College and the author of “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” In November, a Tennessee inmate chose to die in an electric chair rather than consume a fatal cocktail of drugs, which opponents of the death penalty saw as a stark illustration of the brutality of lethal injection. When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented and called on the high court to consider whether methods of execution violated the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment inscribed in the Eighth Amendment.

Dozier was alone at the time of his death, the state said. When emergency medical care failed to revive him, he was pronounced dead at 4:35 p.m. Pacific time. In federal court filings from late last year, federal public defenders representing Dozier had protested that the conditions of his confinement, including his isolation because of apparent suicidal inclinations, violated his constitutional rights.

Prison officials have repeatedly denied that Dozier was mistreated and issued a stock response to his death, pledging that “the Nevada Department of Corrections is committed to building a safer community by striving to incorporate progressive best practices in all aspects of corrections.”

Dozier’s attorney, Thomas Ericsson, couldn’t be reached Sunday. One of his former attorneys, Clark Patrick, told the Review-Journal that he was shocked, having last spoken with Dozier on Thursday, when they discussed plans for a visit on Jan. 14. Patrick said he maintained friendly relations with all of his former clients, but that Dozier was the only one he would “consider a friend.”

Dozier was committed to the Nevada prison in 2007 after a Clark County jury convicted him of first-degree murder in the death of 22-year-old Jeremiah Miller, whose body he had sawed into pieces and placed in a suitcase. He had also been convicted of second-degree murder in a separate case in Arizona in 2005. Both involved the trade of methamphetamine. Dozier waived his right to future appeals in 2016, saying he was prepared to die.

And then he waited. And waited.

FILE - This undated file photo provided by Nevada Department of Corrections photo shows death row inmate Scott Raymond Dozier, who was convicted in 2007 of robbing, killing and dismembering a 22-year-old man in Las Vegas, and was convicted in Arizona in 2005 of another murder and dismemberment near Phoenix. Dozier, whose execution was twice postponed, was found dead in his cell Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. (Nevada Department of Corrections via AP, File)

The poison prepared for Dozier last summer was a never-before-used three-drug mix of midazolam, a common sedative; the painkiller fentanyl; and a muscle-paralyzing agent called cisatracurium.

But the execution, which would have been Nevada’s first in more than a decade, was postponed after Alvogen, a New Jersey-based maker of midazolam, filed a complaint alleging that the state of Nevada had acquired the drug “by subterfuge with the undisclosed and improper intent to use it for the upcoming execution.” In response, the state said the tactic was part of a “guerrilla war against the death penalty,” adopting language used by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in oral arguments in the 2015 Glossip v. Gross case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of the sedative midazolam.

Nevada found support from 15 other states, from Utah to Florida, which banded together to file a brief backing plans to put Dozier to death. Thirty states currently use some form of capital punishment.

Makers of fentanyl and cisatracurium soon joined the lawsuit against Nevada, though U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez found in September that only Alvogen had demonstrated that the state had acted in “bad faith.” In a preliminary injunction, which again halted the execution, she cited a letter in which the company had informed states that it “strongly objects to the use of its products in capital punishment.” The judge warned of “reputational harm” because of “anti-death-penalty sentiments within the medical community.”

Dozier’s execution was first delayed in the fall of 2017, when a different judge objected to the use of cisatracurium based on the testimony of an anesthesiologist, who warned that the paralysis it induced could hide signs that the other two drugs then in the mix, diazepam and fentanyl, were failing. The defense’s expert witness said the condemned prisoner might be able to feel himself suffocating. The state Supreme Court later overturned the judge’s decision.

The legal dispute was ongoing at the time of Dozier’s death. The state warned in a filing in the closing days of 2018 that the objections of private drug companies could effectively neutralize the death penalty. The state’s new attorney general, Democrat Aaron Ford, opposes the death penalty, but declined to tell the Review-Journal whether he would drop the appeals pursued by Adam Laxalt, the former attorney general and unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor.

Dozier was put on suicide watch several times during the wrangling over his execution, though in December he denied attempting to take his own life. “The state’s responsibility is to execute me,” he told the Review-Journal. “I’ve been ready to go for two years now.”

His lawyers said in filings in U.S. District Court in Reno, Nev., that the isolation imposed on Dozier in October had caused him to suffer physically and mentally. “Medical and mental health records, however, do not document or demonstrate a mental health justification for such confinement,” they argued.

In its response, the state said Dozier had repeatedly promised to “take matters into his own hands and end his own life if the State is unable to carry out the execution in a timely manner.” His sister had aimed to provide him with an anatomy textbook with information about cutting the jugular vein, according to the state’s filing, and Dozier had sought razor blades as well as smuggled drugs.

State correctional policies on “disciplinary segregation” indicate that an inmate deemed suicidal by a health care professional will be placed on “suicide watch.”

Suicide has long been a leading cause of death in American jails, where the rate is four times higher than in the general population. In July 2015 alone, six black women died by suicide in U.S. jails, according to Gerald Landsberg, a former professor at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work.

On average, one person dies by suicide every 13 hours in Nevada, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which also includes resources for those who need support.