A Kansas girl’s killer on 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 after a 17-year hiatus.
The 45-year-old was put to death at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Nelson was convicted of grabbing 10-year-old Pamela Butler off the street and throwing her into his truck in broad daylight on Oct. 12, 1999.
Butler’s mother, Cherri West, hoped Nelson’s execution would bring her some peace after living for decades with the torment of her daughter’s final hours.
“To know that that was the last face that she saw on this earth … and having to know how scared she was and what he was doing to her, has literally eaten me up,” she said.
The girl had been returning to her Kansas City, Kansas, home on roller 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 girl and strangled her with a wire, dumping her body in a wooded area near a Missouri church.
Nelson told a co-worker a month earlier he planned to find a female to kidnap, torture, rape and kill because he expected to go back to prison anyway on other charges, prosecutors said.
“The execution of Keith Nelson did not make the world a safer place,” his 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, 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.
A flurry of filings by Nelson’s legal team over several weeks zeroed in on the drug.
In one filing in early August, Nelson’s attorneys cited an unofficial autopsy on one inmate executed last month, William Purkey, saying it indicated evidence of pulmonary edema in which the lungs fill with fluid, causing a painful sensation akin to drowning.
In her now-overturned ruling, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan halted Nelson’s execution early Thursday, saying laws regulating drugs require 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.
In a 2018 ruling, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Nelson showed no remorse during a sentencing hearing statement and instead “blistered the district court and the victim’s family with a profanity laden tirade.”
Sister Barbara Battista, a nun at an Indiana convent and anti-death penalty activist, had spoken to Nelson regularly since last month.
“He committed a heinous crime,” she said. “But he is a human being. … And who among us would want to be judged by their worst decision?”
With the Wednesday execution of Lezmond Mitchell, the federal government under President Donald Trump registered more executions in 2020 than it had in the previous 56 years combined.
Government attorneys have defended the use of pentobarbital, disputing the claim that Purkey’s autopsy proved he suffered. They have also cited Supreme Court ruling precedent that an execution method isn’t necessarily cruel and unusual just because it causes some pain.
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