Inmate on Death Row suspected of taking lethal injection of heroin
By Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross, San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
A convicted murderer awaiting execution at San Quentin State Prison has died of an apparent heroin overdose -- making him California's first inmate to OD on Death Row.
Nicholas Rodriguez, a 27-year-old Los Angeles gang member, was sentenced to die in 2001 for shooting two teenagers to death while fleeing a robbery and for strangling a fellow gang member and gouging out his eyes before dumping the body in a canyon.
While the clock ticked on his date with a lethal injection of potassium chloride, Rodriguez somehow managed to score enough drugs and the paraphernalia to get high.
Apparently a little too high. Early the morning of July 10, Rodriguez was found unconscious in the 5-by-8 cell where he spent 20 hours a day. He was rushed to a medical triage area, where a doctor declared him dead less than 20 minutes later.
"We found a syringe and heroin, so we suspect it was that," San Quentin spokesman Vernell Crittendon said after authorities searched Rodriguez's East Block cell.
Marin County assistant coroner Gary Tindel said his office was awaiting the results of toxicology tests before declaring a cause of death. He declined to speculate whether drugs were to blame.
Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said 42 other Death Row inmates have either committed suicide, been killed or died of natural causes during the state's nearly 30 years of record keeping. But none had died of a drug overdose until now.
Michael Camacho, the L.A. deputy district attorney who prosecuted Rodriguez for the 1999 crimes, said the apparent overdose didn't surprise him. Rodriguez had a history of drug use, he said, and drugs are easy to get in prison -- even on Death Row.
"The accessibility of narcotics is rampant in the Department of Corrections, even though they would prefer not to admit it,'' Camacho said.
Crittendon acknowledges that drugs are a real problem throughout the prison system.
In fact, of the 334 inmates who died in California in 2003 -- the most recent year for which complete records are available -- four overdosed on drugs, and two of those were from heroin.
Still, getting high on Death Row?
Crittendon said it's not all that shocking.
Rodriguez, he noted, was housed alongside some 450 other Death Row inmates and had regular contact with about 85 to 90 of them in the exercise yard.
Plus, Crittendon said, even Death Row inmates are "entitled to rights of all citizens -- all the rights of phone calls and personal visits.''
In other words, there are many channels for contraband to reach prisoners.
An in-house investigation is under way to try to determine just which channel Rodriguez used to get his fix.