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The Volunteer

More than a year ago, Nevada death row prisoner Scott Dozier gave up his legal appeals and asked to be executed. He’s still waiting.

Feature | Filed 6:00 a.m. 01.18.2018
This story was produced in collaboration with Mother Jones

Update 01:30 p.m. 01.06.2019

Scott Dozier died on Saturday in an apparent suicide, according to the Nevada Department of Corrections. Prison officials said in a statement that Dozier was found alone in his cell, hanging from a bed sheet attached to an air vent. In recent months, Dozier had been regularly put on suicide watch and his family said he was deprived of his belongings and outside contact. In December, his lawyers argued in court filings that his mental health was deteriorating due to these conditions, while the state said it was responding to evidence that Dozier was actively planning suicide. He was 48.

Original story

On the day he had been scheduled to die, Scott Dozier arrived at the visiting room inside Ely State Prison looking edgy and exhausted. He’d been thwarted. For more than a year, he had worked to ensure his own execution, waiving his legal appeals and asking a Las Vegas judge to set a date. But with just days to go, the judge had issued a stay amid questions about the drugs Nevada planned to inject into him.

Dozier had spent a decade on death row for the murder of Jeremiah Miller, whose decapitated, partially delimbed torso was found in a Las Vegas dumpster. Now 47, he accepted the punishment, feeling that death would be better than a life spent in prison. “I don’t want to die,” he told me. “I just would rather be dead than do this.”

Of the more than 1,400 men and women who have been executed in the U.S. in the last four decades, roughly one in 10 have abandoned their appeals. In the legal community, they’re known as “volunteers.” But few volunteers have set off as much legal and political upheaval as Dozier. Like many death penalty states, Nevada hasn’t actually executed anyone in years. Dozier’s request spurred a frenzy of preparations involving state and federal lawyers, judges, political leaders and prison officials, who had to rev up an execution apparatus that had been dormant for a decade.

That a man deemed unfit to live in society — indeed, to live at all — could wield such influence is a testament to our country’s conflicted views on the death penalty. We have a president who has extolled capital punishment in tweets and full-page newspaper ads, while exonerations have fueled unease about the system’s flaws. Death sentences have plummeted, and as appeals drag on for years, many condemned prisoners die of old age before they can be executed. It can seem as though we like the idea of the ultimate punishment just so long as we don’t have to kill anyone.

And then comes Scott Dozier, calling our bluff.

A few months ago, after I wrote a story on the state’s plan to kill him with the opioid fentanyl, Dozier called me. He was on the verge of getting what he’d asked for; his execution date was only weeks away. He was planning a series of final interviews, while also vacillating over whether there would be any point to doing them. “The public is ambivalent and apathetic, and maybe there will be 10 minutes of entertainment on the news,” he said of his case. “Maybe a few sick people will spend too much time with it on social media.”

We sat in the Condemned Men’s Unit visiting room, surrounded by murals depicting Spiderman, Superman, Olaf from "Frozen", and a mountain scene. A conversation we expected would focus on Dozier’s preparation for death was instead about his frustration at remaining alive; now he was just like every other prisoner there, waiting for the courts to determine his fate. His eyes flicked over to a female officer 20 feet from us. He wanted to know how long we had to speak, and he walked over and inquired politely. She made a call and delivered a message from some higher-up: “Take as long as you need.”

As he got this tiny bit of control, Dozier’s face relaxed. He stretched out his legs and asked me to buy him a V8 and almonds from the vending machines, and as he grew comfortable, I suddenly realized we were talking about the mp3 player he is allowed to have, on which he listens to St. Vincent, Dead Man’s Bones, and a lot of punk rock and metal. He’d shift topics without warning — even talking about your own death eventually gets boring. At his sentencing, his lawyers predicted that he would thrive in the structured world of prison, and this has proven true, though Dozier would not call it thriving. He’s miserable. “I’d have been just as happy,” he said, “if they took me out back and shot me.”

Compared to most death row prisoners, whose life stories tend to be marked by poverty, mental disability, and childhood trauma, Scott Dozier had a privileged upbringing. His father worked on federal water projects throughout the West, and Dozier moved with his parents and two siblings every few years to different suburban enclaves. But he rebelled early and constantly, selling marijuana and LSD in high school.

Dozier married a high-school girlfriend, and they had a son. After a brief stint in the military, he worked at the Luxor Hotel & Casino, donning gold brocade and a tiger-striped skirt and driving a chariot in a dinner show called “Winds of the Gods.” He was a talented pastel artist, and he ponders the path his life might have taken had he found a mentor. By his mid-20s, he was working as a stripper and doing landscaping gigs, but his primary income was meth, which he began to make and sell as he bounced between Nevada and Arizona.

“I liked the idea of living outside the law,” he said.

In April 2002, several miles from the Las Vegas Strip, a maintenance worker found a suitcase in an apartment dumpster that smelled “very foul” and was attracting flies. Inside was flesh, hair, and a bloody towel. Tattoos on the shoulders helped the authorities match it to a missing person report for 22-year-old Jeremiah Miller.

A witness said he had seen a corpse in Dozier's room, and investigators deduced that Dozier had offered to help Miller obtain ingredients to make meth, then shot him and stole $12,000. “His body was mutilated,” a prosecutor told a jury. “His arms were disarticulated at the elbows. His legs were disarticulated at the knees. His head was removed, and he was cut in half.” An informant told police that Dozier had bragged that he had placed Miller’s head in a bucket of concrete, though it was never found.

At trial, Dozier’s lawyers depicted Miller as a drug dealer trying to move up into meth production. Speaking to a reporter, Miller’s father described his son as “naive to the ways of the world.” During sentencing, a prosecutor acknowledged the victim’s illegal behavior but pointed out that “methamphetamine didn’t pick up a gun, shoot Jeremiah Miller in the head, cut up his body, and dump him in a dumpster.” Dozier’s lawyers countered that despite the gruesome nature of the crime, the killing of a drug dealer hardly qualified Dozier as the worst of the worst. As Dozier puts it, “I never did anything against a child, an innocent person.”

Though he does not express remorse for Miller’s death, he feels sympathy for the young man’s parents. “If this can bring them some gratification, that’s awesome,” he said of his execution. (Miller’s parents declined an interview and said they will not witness Dozier’s execution.) Otherwise, he is cagey about the crime, in part because he hates the idea of appearing as an unconvincing, whiny prisoner, which he calls “a fucking cliché.”

“I’m not looking for mercy,” he said. He sees the death sentence, ultimately, as what he deserves. “Nevada said stop behaving this way or we will kill you, and I kept behaving that way.”

Dozier hasn’t always accepted the legal system’s conclusions about his actions. After his arrest for the Miller murder, another informant led police to the buried body of another young man, 26-year-old Jasen Greene, in Arizona, and said Dozier had killed him, too.

Before he faced the death penalty for killing Miller, he was tried in Phoenix and sentenced to 22 years for Greene’s murder. Several friends, seeking leniency on their own charges, testified against him. He maintains that he never killed Greene. While in jail, he took a massive dose of amitriptyline, an antidepressant, and was in a coma for two weeks. He tried to pull out his intubation tube and lost more than 70 pounds. “I couldn’t even wheel my own fuckin’ wheelchair,” he recalled. He decided he would never attempt suicide again.

A few years earlier, Dozier had read a series of articles in the Phoenix New Times on Robert ”Gypsy” Comer, whom the alt-weekly dubbed “Arizona’s Worst Criminal.” Comer had been sentenced to death after murdering a stranger and raping another at an Arizona campground. He had abandoned his appeals, saying, "I think it's just time for me to pay the price.”

As Dozier faced his own death sentence, he remembered Comer’s story. Soon he started telling friends and family that he wanted to drop his appeals, too.

Nevada's death row is located at Ely State Prison, in Ely, a remote mountain town.

Nevada's death row is located at Ely State Prison, in Ely, a remote mountain town.

In 1976, a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Gary Gilmore was sentenced to death in Utah for the murders of a gas station attendant and motel clerk. He then told a judge, “Unless it’s a joke or something, I want to go ahead and do it.” He became the first person executed in what’s generally called the “modern era” of the punishment. “Saturday Night Live” featured a song called “Let's Kill Gary Gilmore For Christmas.” He was shot by a firing squad in January 1977.

Since then, courts have let more than 140 prisoners give up their appeals and go to their deaths. For a time, the New Jersey Supreme Court declared that capital appeals should be mandatory because the public has an interest in a fair system; the state has since abolished the death penalty. In most states, volunteers simply have had to prove their mental competence, but the bar is low. During a 1983 court hearing, Texas prisoner Charles Rumbaugh declared, “If they don’t want to take me down there and execute me, I’ll make them shoot me.” He then attempted to do just that, charging at a deputy U.S. marshal — who promptly shot him. He survived, and was executed two years later.

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Florida multiple-murderer Aileen Wuornos (who inspired the 2003 film “Monster”) both abandoned their appeals, but most volunteers have received little public attention, and their motivations are not widely understood. In 2004, law professor John Blume found broad similarities between volunteers and those who commit suicide in the free world; they tend to be white and have a history of substance abuse, mental illness, or both.

When Northwestern University law professor Meredith Rountree studied the public statements of Texas volunteers about their decisions, she found a variety of explanations: Some simply believed that death was a fair punishment for their crimes. Others spoke of a desire for spiritual rebirth in the next life. And many just didn’t see value in living in brutal prison conditions, including solitary confinement with virtually no human contact. Researchers have coined the phrase “death row syndrome” to describe such hopelessness.

For Dozier, life on death row has been relatively comfortable. He works with pastels, listens to NPR, watches PBS. He has access to a wide range of music. He lifts weights, and his muscles grew so big that a judge jokingly asked at one hearing, "Is there a fitter death row inmate on the planet?" He cuts his own hair, and on the day I met him, he’d styled it with a buzz on the sides and a sweep on top.

Almost three years ago, he met a filmmaker named Alex Morelli who was working on a documentary about Ely, the remote Nevada mountain town where death row is located. The two became friendly, speaking regularly by phone, and began to collaborate artistically: Dozier used pastels to recreate images Morelli had captured on film. In 2012, Dozier wrote a letter to a VICE Magazine editor about his experiences: “I’ve got a surplus of time on my hands and a catastrophic dearth of intelligence, hilarity, and awesomeness. I can only draw and work out so much.” The magazine ran the letter, and Dozier joked to the editor that when he was executed, “My last thought will be ‘and I got published in VICE.’” One friend dubbed him “TGN”: The Gregarious Nihilist.

Over the years, Dozier’s parents, siblings, and friends have visited often, even though Ely State Prison is a four-hour drive from a major airport. For some condemned prisoners, having a support network makes life worth living. For Dozier, it has only strengthened his desire to die; he knows the upper limit of how good his life can be. He doesn’t want to enter a serious, long-term romantic relationship: “It seems like a heartache and bad time for everyone involved. Why would I do that?” He entered prison at age 34, and he wonders if those who resign themselves to life behind bars got there younger and don’t know what they’re missing.

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He has also struggled with the idea that by living he would be condemning his family to years of pain. He has a granddaughter, and he doesn’t want her to know him only as a prisoner.

Dozier’s immediate family, who declined an interview for this story, has come to accept his decision. But in the past they’ve leaned on him to hold off on volunteering for execution; occasionally they’ve prevailed. A few years ago, his younger brother asked him to wait to stop his appeals. The brother’s wife was pregnant, and he wanted Dozier to meet his son. “My initial response was it’s not going to make any difference,” Dozier told me. “My sister said, ‘Don’t be a fuckin’ asshole. You can do anything for a year for our brother.’ She was absolutely right.”

In the meantime, he remained close with his ex-wife, Angela Drake, who urged him not to give up hope that he might get out of prison someday. “The whole time I have seen Scott being free, period,” she told me. “He’s not wired to be incarcerated.” Drake had a new partner who was wealthy and offered to bankroll her ex-husband’s appeals. Dozier convinced himself that it was worth a shot, and together they decided to focus on Arizona, where the case against him was arguably weaker. Many of the prosecution’s witnesses were the same, so the thinking was that unraveling the Arizona conviction might pave the way for similar results in Nevada.

Whether or not you buy Dozier’s claims, his Arizona appeal is a glimpse into the sordid world he’d inhabited. He said that a girlfriend had asked him if Greene — the victim — could stay at a trailer he was using to cook meth, and he agreed. Returning to the trailer one day, he found Greene’s lifeless body, he said, and fearing that calling the police would expose his operation, he buried him. (Greene’s family members could not be reached.) Dozier’s lawyers also found flaws in the state’s ballistics evidence and argued that the prosecutors had withheld material that may have cast doubt on Dozier’s guilt, which was particularly important because most of the witnesses were testifying against him to get better deals for themselves.

One of those witnesses, Joe Wolslager, who says he helped Dozier bury the body in Arizona, has stood by his testimony. “He pretty much told me he did it,” he said. “He is one of the smartest, most gifted individuals I’ve ever met in my entire life,” but “he made some really dumb decisions.”

In early October 2016, the superior court in Maricopa County rejected Dozier’s appeal. His lawyers went up to the Arizona Court of Appeals — where he is still waiting on an answer — but the losses drained him of hope. That October 31, he sent a handwritten letter to Clark County District Judge Jennifer Togliatti: “I, Scott Raymond Dozier...of sound mind, do hereby request that my death sentence be enacted and I be put to death.” He found a university lab that would accept his brain for research; his family would get the rest of him to cremate.

Last July, Togliatti summoned him to court. By then, it was clear that the state would struggle to find execution drugs and that such problems had been tied to painful, botched executions in other states. “That has not dissuaded you from asking me to sign this warrant?” she asked. “Quite frankly, your honor, all those people ended up dead,” Dozier said, “and that’s my goal here.”

Dozier regularly sent her letters throughout the year to reaffirm his wish to be executed. He occasionally added jokes. “What is brown and sticky?” he wrote once. “A stick.”

When a prisoner volunteers for execution, the decision can force soul-searching by judges and defense lawyers, who wonder if their roles have become akin to those of euthanasia doctors. After Dozier withdrew his appeals, one of his lawyers, Christopher Oram, quit the case. “I’m not going to go into court and help you die,” he said. Dozier’s current attorney David Anthony declined to discuss his views with me, but after one hearing he told reporters, “As a defense attorney, I try to help people and save people, and so it creates a moral dilemma.”

It also creates a dilemma for states that want the harshness of death sentences without the messiness of carrying them out. The legal scholars (and siblings) Jordan Steiker and Carol Steiker have written that states like Nevada are “symbolic,” sentencing many people to death — in 2017, Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, obtained the second-most death sentences of any county in the country — but rarely executing anyone. California, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania together house nearly 1,000 death row prisoners; all told, they have executed just 22 people in the last four decades.

The Steiker siblings have examined a range of reasons for the disconnect; many of these states are outside the South and politically diverse, and while a district attorney in a conservative county scores points by sending someone to death row, a governor or attorney general risks alienating liberal voters by carrying out an execution. A more liberal political culture can also lead to better funding for public defenders, who become effective at litigating death row appeals. In these states, volunteers make up a large proportion of those executed. In addition to Nevada, every single execution since the 1970s in Oregon, South Dakota, Connecticut and New Mexico has involved the condemned man’s participation. “We don’t kill them in Nevada unless they agree to it,” said Clark County public defender Scott Coffee. “What you’ve got with Dozier is state-assisted suicide.”

Scott Dozier was sentenced to death for the 2002 murder of 22-year-old Jeremiah Miller.

Scott Dozier was sentenced to death for the 2002 murder of 22-year-old Jeremiah Miller.

Around the time of Dozier’s decision, Nevada finished construction on a new death chamber, which cost the state $860,000. (The old one was located at a prison that had closed.) But there was little expectation that the state would use the facility anytime soon. The last execution had taken place in 2006, years before pharmaceutical companies had tried to stop states from using their drugs to kill prisoners. In September 2016, Nevada corrections department director James Dzurenda sought drugs from 247 different suppliers; none were interested. Dozier’s decision added pressure to the search, and in August of last year, Dzurenda sent a letter to the Association of State Correctional Administrators, asking if other states had extra drugs they might send to Nevada.

Dzurenda’s search was evidently unfruitful. Later that month, prison officials announced a solution: They would settle for drugs they could get. That included fentanyl (the opioid known for causing thousands of overdose deaths around the country), diazepam (the anti-anxiety drug better known as Valium), and cisatracurium (a paralytic first discovered on the tips of poisoned arrows in South America).

The department also revised its massive execution manual, making decisions about who could witness and how to manage Dozier during his final two weeks. They held “dry runs” with staff from the offices of the governor, attorney general, and Clark County district attorney, according to DOC spokeswoman Brooke Keast. They solicited advice from Texas on how to handle media.

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Dozier said his lawyers wanted to contest the drug cocktail, which could eventually be used on their other death row clients. Though Dozier did not care how he died, he decided to let them litigate. “I think when you’re murdering people at the behest — and for the alleged general good — of the public, they should tell the public what’s going on,” Dozier told me. But he also had his own concerns: “If I had the choice between a drawn-out process or a quick and painless death, I’ll choose painless.”

Paralytics have long been the target of lawyers concerned about pain during executions, and Dozier’s attorneys argued that if the fentanyl failed to render him unconscious, the paralytic would give him the sensation of suffocating. A state lawyer countered, “I’m wanting to know how everybody is overdosing across America if fentanyl does not produce unconsciousness.”

Five days before the execution date, Togliatti declared that the paralytic shouldn’t be part of the cocktail. State Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is running for governor this year, requested a stay of execution so the Nevada Supreme Court would have a chance to overrule the judge. Togliatti issued the stay, and Dozier immediately thought of his parents and siblings, who were planning their final visits and had steeled themselves to say goodbye. Later that day, thinking about how the postponement would affect his family, he began to cry.

“I think his family are victims of the emotional yo-yo here,” said Dozier’s cousin Rich Stephenson. “He feels like his problem is creating pain for us. And here we are trying to support him.”

During Dozier’s trial in Nevada, as his lawyers tried to convince the jury to spare his life, they revealed that as a child he was sexually abused by teenage neighbors. A psychologist said his “presenting behavior suggests elements of antisocial personality disorder with narcissistic traits.”

“If you’ve spoken to him, you don’t need a Ph.D. to see that,” said mitigation specialist Vince Gonzales, who researches the lives of people facing the death penalty. A few years ago, Gonzales was hired by Dozier’s defense team. He went deeper into his family history, finding that at least five relatives on his mother’s side had committed suicide, including his grandfather, who told the family he’d been diagnosed with cancer and didn’t want to put them through a long battle. Gonzales tracked down the autopsy and found a surprise: The grandfather did not have cancer.

Gonzales came to see Dozier as part of a line of “myth-building” family members, who want to be remembered with a kind of romance. Later Dozier called Gonzales, whose findings were never filed in court, “patronizing” and a “dingbat.” Both men agree that Dozier, who likes to maintain a sense of control, is offended by the suggestion that his crimes were the result of anything other than his own decision-making, just as he recoils at being at the mercy of courts and prison officials.

“I do respect his decision,” Gonzales said of Dozier’s choice to volunteer. “It’s the best he can do with the situation as it is.”

Dozier’s decision began as a personal one, which he may have expected to affect only a small circle of people around him, but as the case drags on, the circle grows wider. Pfizer demanded that Nevada return two of the execution drugs, fentanyl and diazepam, and the state refused. The ACLU of Nevada petitioned the state’s governor to stop the execution. Dozier received letters from defense lawyers who were bitter that his efforts might pave the way for their own clients’ deaths. If the case continues for much longer, it could come up in the state’s gubernatorial race.

In the meantime, the legal questions have grown even more convoluted. After the judge stayed the execution, Dozier asked her to put it back on. Then lawyers for the state, who had asked for the stay, switched course. Since they effectively agreed with Dozier, they said, there was no reason to delay. Dozier’s lawyers accused the state of acting in bad faith — stopping the execution and then taking advantage of Dozier’s frustration to push it through. Then the state said Dozier’s lawyers were operating against their client’s wishes. Dozier’s lawyers said his wishes were irrelevant if the Constitution was about to be violated.

At an early December hearing, Togliatti seemed frustrated with everyone. “You could have proceeded,” the judge told the state. “He could be dead today.” To Dozier, she said, “You pursued this relief, you got this relief, and now you want a do-over, I guess.”

Togliatti decided the final word on the new drug protocol should lie with the Nevada Supreme Court. The court has given no indication of how quickly it will handle the case, though Laxalt, who declined to comment for this story, has asked for a quick decision — the paralytic begins expiring on April 1 and the diazepam a month later.

Dozier has returned, grudgingly, to his routines. He is frustrated with himself for having allowed his lawyers to fight. (“It was a doomed relationship from the start,” he said.) He knows nobody is sympathetic to him, given what he was convicted of doing. But he is comforted, too, imagining his family and closest friends gathered for a final visit. “I’d want them all to get the same joy I get from each other, and watch it, tell myself a good story, and walk out on that story,” he said. If he could, he’d watch his own funeral.

Gonzales, the mitigation specialist, thinks Dozier is trolling us all, enjoying his moment at the center of a circus of his own creation. “He thought this could be a big F. U. to the state of Nevada,” he said, “and he’d get the last laugh.” Dozier swears he doesn’t see it that way. “I’m tired of being someone else’s pawn,” he said. “They spent millions of dollars giving me a death sentence, and then millions of dollars not killing me. It doesn’t make any fuckin’ sense.”

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