By Christopher Zoukis
The synthetic opioid , which has played a significant part in the nation’s more than 30,000 annual deaths from overdoses, has for the first time been used in a capital punishment protocol in the U.S.
On August 14, at the state penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska used fentanyl in a four-drug series of injections to execute a 60-year old inmate, Carey Dean Moore, who had been convicted of killing two Omaha cab drivers five days apart in 1979. It was Nebraska’s first execution since 1997 when electrocution was the state’s death penalty method (switched in 1913 from hanging).
About 60,000 Nebraskans signed petitions opposing Moore’s execution, and three Catholic bishops in the state, reflecting the recent change in doctrine announced by a Pope Francis condemning capital punishment as “inadmissible,” issued a joint statement decrying the scheduled execution.
The Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had the day before unsuccessfully sought to persuade the state’s top court to delay Moore’s execution while a legal challenge to the state’s death penalty brought on behalf of eight other Death Row inmates proceeded.
Earlier two federal courts had rejected a drug company’s lawsuit seeking to disallow use of one of the drugs, claiming the state had obtained it improperly (a tactic which had postponed an earlier execution date set for Moore in 2011). Another drug firm’s similar lawsuit is still pending.
But having spent 38 years, more than half of his lifespan, awaiting execution for the crimes, Moore himself did not take steps to block his execution. Moore’s twin brother Donald, who had served ten years for his part in one of the murders, said his brother “would just like to die.”
The execution protocol began with intravenously injecting Moore, whose wrists and ankles were shackled to a gurney, with the sedative Valium (diazepam), followed by the painkiller fentanyl, and muscle relaxant cisatracurium besylate and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
The death penalty has had a checkered history in Nebraska. In 1999, the state put a moratorium on executions, and the Nebraska Supreme Court nine years later ruled the use of the electric chair was unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment (at the time it was the state’s only authorized method of execution).
The state’s unicameral legislature had on several occasions exempted groups seen as needing special protection (minors or persons with developmental disabilities) from capital punishment, and on several occasions sought to repeal its death penalty statute. The first repeal measure passed in 1979, only to be vetoed by then-governor Charles Thone.
In 2015, the Republican-controlled state legislature again voted to eliminate the death penalty, but Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the measure. This time the legislature overrode the veto, thus putting in place repeal of the death penalty.
But the next year, state voters handily approved a ballot initiative which overturned the legislature’s repeal of the death penalty (repeal passed by a 61-39 margin, gaining approval in all but one of the state’s 93 counties). The governor, a staunch supporter of capital punishment, had donated $300,000 of his own funds to support the ballot initiative.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.