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Idaho prepares for execution

Idaho's new death chamber is ready for the scheduled execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades, convincted of a string of murders and sexual assaults that terrorized eastern Idaho in the late 1980s. The state prisons have constructed a new death chamber, and moved Rhoades to a small holding cell just across the hall. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Idaho unveils new execution chamber

REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The small cell holding Paul Ezra Rhoades sits across a hallway from the room in which he is scheduled to die in less than a month. His isolation cell is quiet as a worker brings in a tray of medicine.

The death chamber is silent, save for the faint hum of fluorescent lights.

It is all pristine: The cream-colored gurney unused, the wooden podium emblazoned with the Great Seal of Idaho not yet fitted with a microphone. No one has ever been killed in this room.

But the Idaho Department of Correction has been practicing the motions of an execution for years, anticipating that as many as three death row inmates will be put to death here before the end of 2013.
The first, 54-year-old Rhoades, is scheduled to die Nov. 18 unless he is granted clemency or a last-minute stay by the federal courts. He is already under 24-hour suicide watch in anticipation of the event.

Rhoades was sentenced to death for the sexual assault and murder of Idaho Falls teacher Susan Michelbacher, 34, whose bullet-ridden body was found in March 1987, and for the first-degree murder and kidnapping of Stacy Dawn Baldwin, 21, a Blackfoot convenience store clerk who was shot to death in February 1987.

Rhoades was also sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the March 1987 shooting death of Nolan Haddon, 21, a Blackfoot man who worked at an Idaho Falls convenience store.

“Our focus, if we are tasked with carrying out this order, is that we do so with professionalism, dignity and respect,” Idaho Department of Correction Operations Chief Kevin Kempf said. “There are so many moving parts, and we don't want Murphy's law to show up. We need to think of every possibility.”

The Correction Department gave The Associated Press an exclusive tour of the execution chamber Thursday. State officials decided to build it at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution two years ago, abandoning the single-wide trailer with dingy carpet and fake wood paneling that was used for the state's last execution in 1994.

The trailer still sits just a few yards away from the new structure, which was finished late last week. It's a short walk from the prison's cellblocks and past the recreation area to the one-story, brick building with small glass-block windows.

The state has already established its execution teams: An escort team to lead the condemned to the execution chamber; the medical team responsible for inserting the intravenous catheters, mixing the lethal chemicals and monitoring vital statistics; and the injection team responsible for actually administering the lethal injection. In all, about 20 people will be directly involved.

“We are going to be vigilant about the anonymity of all those people,” Kempf said. “The execution team is made up of professional, well-trained people, in some cases from inside our department and in some cases from outside our department.”

Department officials have tried to anticipate every possibility, said Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke. The Idaho State Police, Idaho National Guard and local law enforcement agencies will assist with security. A no-fly zone will be in place over the prison in the hours surrounding the execution. Separate areas will be cordoned off for those wishing to protest for and against the execution. The podium in the chamber, where the warden will stand throughout the execution, will be equipped with a phone for any last-minute commutation. A defibrillator will be on hand in case the condemned inmate has to be revived.

Two viewing rooms are also in place — a smaller one to hold the two witnesses there on behalf of Rhoades, chosen from his family, friends or attorneys, and a larger one to hold the myriad witnesses there on behalf of the state, the media and the victims' families.

Rhoades was moved from his death row unit to the isolation cell Wednesday after he was served with his official death warrant.

“It allows us to make sure that our focus is with those last 30 days, ensuring that the security is where it needs to be. If is he afforded a visit from his clergy or from a family member, it just allows us to make sure that takes place, as opposed to on that regular unit,” Kempf said.

Anxieties are already higher for the other inmates at the prison, said Warden Randy Blades, in no small part because executions are a rarity in Idaho. The last inmate to be executed, Keith Wells in 1994, gave up all of his remaining appeals and asked the state to carry out his lethal injection. The previous execution was in 1957, when Raymond Allen Snowden was hanged at the old Idaho State Penitentiary for stabbing a woman to death.

It's also a weighty issue for the prison employees who will be involved in the process, Kempf said. But whether they are involved or not, all prison officials are keeping the victims' families in mind, he said.
“Our hearts, literally, are with the victims. This obviously cannot be a very easy time for them and certainly what they have gone through to get to this point is an incredible amount of tragedies,” Kempf said. “That said, yes, this is impactful to our staff, to everyone involved in this thing. You have to have a level of toughness just to do this job every single day.”

Correction Department officials have been in contact with the victims' families, Reinke said, and they haven't yet decided whether they will attend the execution.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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