Keith Nelson was put to death at a federal prison in Terre Haute Friday afternoon.
(Courtesy of Kansas City, KS Police Department)
A Kansas girl's killer Friday became the fifth federal inmate put to death this year, an execution that went forward only after a higher court tossed a ruling that would have required the government to get a prescription for the drug used to kill him.
Questions about whether the drug pentobarbital causes pain prior to death had been a focus of appeals for Keith Nelson, 45, the second inmate executed this week in the Trump administration's resumption of federal executions this summer after a 17-year hiatus.
The Bureau of Prisons gave the time of Nelson's death inside a death chamber at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, as 4:32 p.m. EDT.
When a prison official standing over him asked if he had any last words, he was met with silence. Nelson didn't utter a word, grunt or nod his head.
A U.S. Marshal who was also in the execution chamber then picked up a phone with a direct line to the Department of Justice Command Center. The marshal hung up the phone and told the prison official. "There are no impediments."
At 4:23 p.m. the microphone inside the execution chamber was silenced, but the prisons official could be seen saying something on his radio. A minute before being prounced dead, a man walked into the execution chamber and checked Nelson's vital signs.
“I feel at peace now, and I feel that Pammi’s soul is at peace now and she can rest," said Cherri West, the mother of Pamela Butler, Nelson's victim.
Nelson was convicted of grabbing 10-year-old Pamela off the street and throwing her into his truck in broad daylight on Oct. 12, 1999, as part of a plan to find a female to kidnap, torture, rape and kill because he expected to go back to prison anyway.
The girl had been returning to her Kansas City, Kansas, home on inline skates after buying cookies. As he drove off with her, he made a rude gesture to her sister, who saw the attack and screamed. He later raped the fifth-grader and strangled her with a wire.
“What happened to Pammi was just horrible, she suffered a horrible death, she was only 10, she had her whole life ahead of her, and he robbed of her of that," West said.
West thanked members of her community back in Kansas, many of them strangers that helped search for Pamela.
"The hugs have been tremendous, I don't think without the hugs I would have made it this far," West said.
Nelson, like the other federal inmates executed this year, received a lethal injection of pentobarbital, which depresses the central nervous system and eventually stops the heart.
Nelson's attorneys said they had come to know him as someone other than a killer, that they "saw his humanity, his compassion, and his sense of humor."
"The execution of Keith Nelson did not make the world a safer place," the lawyers, Dale Baich and Jen Moreno, said in a statement. "Keith's death sentence was the result of a proceeding that denied him constitutionally guaranteed protections and reveals another deep flaw in the federal death penalty system."
Nelson's spiritual adviser, Sister Barbara Battista, stood near Nelson's inside the death chamber. She spoke to the 45-year-old Nelson regularly since last month, and last talked to him by phone Wednesday, saying he sounded more subdued than usual but not frightened.
"His parting words were . 'I don't want to see you on Friday but I probably will,'" she said in an interview Friday. "He would rather be alive after Friday. But he is facing the reality."
A flurry of filings by Nelson's legal team over several weeks zeroed in on pentobarbital, which depresses the central nervous system and, in high doses, eventually stops the heart.
In one filing in early August, Nelson's attorneyscited an unofficial autopsyon one inmate executed last month, William Purkey, saying it indicated evidence of pulmonary edema in which the lungs fill with fluid and causes a painful sensation akin to drowning.
In her now-overturned ruling, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkanhalted Nelson's executionearly Thursday, saying laws regulating drugs require the prescriptions, even for executions. Within hours a panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw out Chutkan's order with little explanation.
Pentobarbital has few medical uses for humans, though it is often used by veterinarians to euthanize animals.
Three federal executions in the early 2000s deployed a cocktail of three drugs: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
But after makers of those drugs objected to their use in executions, states and the federal government scrambled for alternatives. Attorney General William Barr last year approved reworked execution protocols that called for using pentobarbital alone.