Once again, Nevada aims for history with execution of Las Vegas murderer

execution of Las Vegas murderer

Zane Floyd (courtesy Nevada Department of Corrections)

An inmate sits on death row in Nevada awaiting execution in a unique way, with a combination of lethal drugs never before used for that purpose. But believe it or not, if carried out, this would not be the first time the Silver State has made death penalty history.

The inmate is Zane Floyd, 45. He was convicted of murdering four workers at a Las Vegas supermarket in 1999. His videotaped confession was played in court–along with store video of his acts. It took a jury barely two hours to convict him of four counts of first-degree murder and various other charges, including an earlier sexual assault.

The Nevada Supreme Court upheld his conviction and sentence way back in 2002. Floyd’s appeals now have been exhausted. With the support of Gov. Steve Sisolak, the Nevada legislature just scuttled an effort to abolish the death penalty in Nevada, maybe Floyd’s last hope.

But the Nevada Department of Corrections has been having problems finding drugs to use in the execution, which is now scheduled for next month. Officials recently told a court a four-drug cocktail, including some alternatives, would be used. One drug for sure would be ketamine, an anesthetic. Floyd’s lawyers say ketamine never has been used in an American execution and thus would be part of a never-before-used protocol. They say it could lead to “excessive secretions from the mouth” and vomiting while generating burning sensation in Floyd’s veins and lungs leading to “unconstitutional pain and suffering” despite the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” They are pushing for a firing squad, saying death would be instantaneous.

The rest of this post mostly repeats word-for-word what I wrote in this space in 2018 involving another impending Nevada unique drug-combo execution case, that of double murderer Scott Dozier. Unlike Floyd, Dozier wanted to die. Fed up with delays caused by lawyers he tried to fire, Dozier eventually cheated the executioner by hanging himself in his death row cell at the Ely State Prison.

As someone New To Las Vegas, I think it can be fairly debated whether a thinly populated, minimal government desert state like Nevada has the expertise and competence to pull off a humane execution using an untested process, in this case the specific drug combo. But astonishingly, this wouldn’t be the first time that Nevada has ventured down this Brave New World path.

You see, Nevada was the first jurisdiction in the entire world to execute a condemned prisoner in a gas chamber. That was nearly a century ago in 1924. The state somewhat botched the first attempt. There are lessons here.

execution of Las Vegas killer

Gee Jon (courtesy Nevada Historical Society Quarterly)

That case was of Gee Jon, 29. Born in China in 1895, he had emigrated in his teens to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he eventually became a member of the Hip Sing Tong gang, whose product line was narcotics and bootleg liquor. Its principal competitor was the Bing Kong Tong gang. Both outfits sought to spread their influence across the country. Murdering rivals was one way to do that.

That is apparently what brought Gee and Hughie Sing, a 19-year-old accomplice born and raised in the Nevada state capital of Carson City, to Mina, Nev., a railroad town on what is now U.S. 95 some 280 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The victim was immigrant Tom Quong Kee, a 74-year-old laundry operator and a Bing Kong Tong member. Gee spoke little English, and Sing seemed to function as Gee’s interpreter

On the night of August 27, 1921, Gee and Sing went to Tom’s cabin. Sing, who previously had lived in Tom’s home, knocked on the rear door. Tom, holding a candle, answered in his pajamas, whereupon Gee shot him twice through the heart with a .38 Colt revolver. Gee and Sing were arrested a few days later 160 miles away in Reno. Sing quickly confessed and implicated Gee. (I am drawing much of this section from a 1975 article in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, “Example for the Nation: Nevada’s Execution of Gee Jon,” by Loren B. Chan.)

Barely three months later, a jury in nearby Hawthorne convicted the pair of first degree murder after a week-long trial. District Judge J. Emmett Walsh sentenced them to death. But owning to his age and the fact he wasn’t the triggerman, Sing eventually saw his sentence commuted to life imprisonment by the Nevada Board of Pardons. (After serving 17 years, he was released on parole in 1938 and left Nevada for California.) It may or may not be significant that the trial and sentencing took place amid what one scholar called “a wave of anti-immigrant and racist hysteria that gripped the country at that time.”

As it happened, earlier that year the Nevada legislature, at the urging of state Deputy Attorney General Frank Kern, had passed what was officially called the “Humane Execution Bill.” It replaced hanging or firing squad (the choice was up to the inmate) with execution by lethal gas. Gas had been of interest as a means of capital punishment thanks to the writings of New York City psychiatrist Allan McLean Hamilton (a grandson, by the way, of Alexander Hamilton), who argued it would be a more humane process.

The bill cleared each legislative chamber with only one dissenting vote. Although opposed to capital punishment, Gov. Emmet Boyle, a liberal Democrat and mining engineer, signed the bill into law, perhaps figuring the courts would strike it down. But in 1923 the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the law in State v. Gee Jon. The unanimous ruling cited “the old biblical law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'” and complimented the Legislature for “inflicting the death penalty in the most humane manner known to modern science.”

Nevada’s new procedure drew wide notice, much of it unfavorable. Editorialized The New York Times, “The electric chair is not modern enough for the Nevadans, apparently, or else it displeases them in some way, and their law calls for the use of putting condemned murderers to death in what is called in euphemistic terms a ‘lethal chamber’–a room that can be made airtight and into which at will can be introduced through hidden conduits a suffocating gas.”

Hamilton suggested that a gas such as carbon monoxide could be pumped into a prisoner’s airtight cell while he slept, leading to a painless death. Nevada prison authorities instead chose hydrocyanic gas (cyanide gas), which was used to kill pests in California citrus groves. The warden of the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, Denver S. Dickerson (a former Nevada governor), sent an aide to California to buy and haul back over icy mountain roads to Nevada tanks of liquid cyanide, which would be turned into gas by an “autofumer” the state purchased for $700 (about $10,000 in 2018 dollars).

But Dickerson realized that gassing Gee in his cell while asleep without warning, while maybe more humane, was not practical. So according to Fatal Airs: The Deadly History and Apocalyptic Future of Lethal Gases That Threaten Our World, by Scott Christianson, the state converted an tiny old stand-alone granite prison barber shop into a gas chamber at the Nevada State Prison. Four prison guards quit, fearful of leaking gas. Tests were conducted on animals, including what one Chinese-language press account described as a “stray white large cat.” Federal authorities in Washington, D.C. asked for an after-action report.

On the cloudy, humid morning of February 8, 1924, the 5-foot-5, 129-pound Gee was strapped into the chamber’s chair. He wept, but stopped after a prison guard shouted at him, “Brace up!” All but Gee departed, and the chamber was sealed. With 30 witnesses including reporters watching through windows, the gassing started. Predictions were that Gee would die within two minutes.

But he didn’t! Thanks to a malfunctioning heater, the temperature inside the chamber was a cool 52 degrees, causing the deadly liquid to collect on the floor rather than immediately turn into deadly gas, reducing the killing power. Reporters with watches noted that it was a good 10 minutes before Gee finally was motionless.

It took two hours of venting before authorities could open the chamber, remove Gee’s body and take it to the prison hospital. Doctors confirmed he was dead but, fearful of releasing toxic gas, declined to conduct an autopsy. Gee was buried in the prison cemetery on a nearby hill.

Public opinion varied widely. Nevada media thought the process was humane enough. Out-of-state press was not so kind. “One hundred years from now Nevada will be referred to as a heathen commonwealth controlled by savages with only the outward symbols of civilization,” declared the San Jose Mercury Herald in California.

Warden Dickerson later wrote that the gas chamber execution was painless to Gee but not efficient, due to expense and the considerable potential for problems. Still, Nevada conducted another 32 gas-chamber executions until the state officially switched to lethal injection in 1983. Nine other states, including California, also used gas chambers. No states do now. The Nevada State Prison was closed in 2012.

Zane Floyd’s execution by lethal injection would take place at the Ely State Prison, 240 miles north of Las Vegas. That’s on the other side of the state from where Gee committed his murder and was executed for it 97 years ago. It remains to be seen if Floyd’s departure will go any smoother.

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