Nebraska

Nebraska

Judges in Idaho, Nebraska Order States to Release Execution-Related Records

Judges in Idaho and Nebraska have ordered prison officials to release execution-related records the states had sought to keep secret. Finding that the Idaho Department of Correction (IDOC) acted frivolously and in bad faith in its prior response to a public records request, a state court judge ruled on March 21 that officials at IDOC must release documents related to the state’s death-penalty and execution processes. In Nebraska, a federal district court judge ruled on March 15 that the state must provide information to lawyers representing Arkansas death-row prisoners relating to how Nebraska obtained the fentanyl used in executing Carey Dean Moore in August 2018.

In the Idaho lawsuit, Fourth District Judge Lynn Norton chastised IDOC for its bad faith in barely responding to a public records request for execution-related documents submitted by University of Idaho professor Aliza Cover. Judge Norton ruled that the Department must release documents that will include the state’s source of execution drugs it used in its last execution and ordered that IDOC pay court and attorney’s fees for Cover.

Cover had sought copies of receipts, purchase orders, and other information related to the drugs Idaho used in its last two executions in 2011 and 2012 and those it expects to use in future executions. The department disclosed only a copy of the state’s execution policy manual, claiming that the remaining documents were exempt from public review. Cover, who studies the death penalty and its application, sued. IDOC redacted dozens of items from execution records, including not only the names of prison staff who participated in executions, but their handwriting, and the names of people only tangentially involved in executions, such as clergy who counsel death-row prisoners and hairdressers who give prisoners their final haircuts. The state claimed, without evidence, that the redactions were necessary to protect those individuals from protest, harassment, or violence. Similar claims of threats against execution team members in other states have been found to be unsubstantiated. Idaho officials also withheld information on the source of execution drugs used in the past, claiming that suppliers would no longer provide the drugs if their identities were revealed.

Norton’s ruling will force the IDOC to release a receipt for lethal-injection drugs from a compounding pharmacy that were used in Richard Albert Leavitt’s 2012 execution, the most recent execution in Idaho. IDOC will be able to withhold information about the drugs from Paul Ezra Rhoades’s 2011 lethal-injection execution because the source may still be supplying drugs used in lethal injections.

In the Nebraska case, U.S. District Court Senior Judge Laurie Smith Camp gave the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services until April 12 to turn over documents detailing its efforts to obtain its execution drugs, but allowed the state to redact information concerning the identity of the pharmacy that supplied the drugs because the company had “made a business decision to decline any future sales of chemicals to any state, including Nebraska.” Arkansas prisoners who are challenging that state’s use of the drug midazolam in executions were seeking the information to meet the obligation imposed by the U.S. Supreme Court that they prove that an alternative drug was available. The court required Nebraska to disclose records related to how the state identified the pharmacy and persuaded it to supply fentanyl to Nebraska.

Many states attempt to shroud their execution processes and practices in secrecy. “When the state keeps secret basic information about the death penalty, the public cannot ensure that it is carried out humanely or constitutionally,” Cover said.

Two Legislatures, Two Divergent Approaches to Execution Transparency

After controversial executions raised questions of government competence or misconduct, legislatures in two states have responded with bills taking sharply different approaches to the questions of government accountability and public oversight. Following an execution in which Nebraska Department of Corrections officials closed the curtain on fourteen crucial minutes of the execution of Carey Dean Moore, the Nebraska Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on March 7, 2019 on a bill that would mandate that two legislators witness an execution and require that eyewitnesses be permitted to observe the entirety of an execution from the moment the condemned prisoner enters the execution chamber to the time death is declared or the execution is called off. By contrast, an Arkansas state senator has responded to a lawsuit by pharmaceutical companies challenging widespread improprieties in the state’s procurement of execution drugs with a proposal that the state adopt the most extreme and punitive drug-secrecy law in the country.

In her statement to the Judiciary Committee, Nebraska State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln (pictured, left), who sponsored Legislative Bill 238, said legislation was necessary to redress the “profound” lack of transparency in the state’s execution process. “This bill is not about whether the death penalty is right or wrong,” she said, “it’s about whether we have proper government accountability and transparency in carrying out this grave and somber event.” Corrections Director Scott Frakes, whom committee members criticized for failing to appear personally to respond to questions about the Moore execution, sent a letter to the committee opposing the bill. Omitting reference to the periods of the execution in which the execution-IV line was inserted and the curtain was dropped, Frakes claimed that “[w]itnesses observe the entire execution process." Referring legislators to the Death Penalty Information Center’s November 2018 report on execution secrecy in the United States, DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham told the committee of numerous incidents in which eyewitness observations could have resolved serious questions about problematic executions. Dunham told the committee that in a government by and for the people, the state “shouldn't hide important information from the people.”

In Arkansas, a bill introduced in the state senate sought to further conceal the state’s controversial execution practices. On March 6, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill sponsored by State Sen. Bart Hester (pictured, right), that would broadly exclude from public disclosure any documents, records, or information that could lead to the discovery of the state’s sources of execution drug or the identification of drug manufacturers or distributors. The bill also would make reckless disclosure of such information a felony. Arkansas’s conduct in procuring execution drugs, which led drug distributor McKesson Medical-Surgical to sue the state alleging that Arkansas had deliberately misled the company to believe that the drug purchase was for legitimate medical purposes, raised questions concerning the need for transparency in the execution process. Those questions were heightened following evidence of additional problems during executions with those drugs. After Arkansas state courts ruled that the state’s prisons must disclose portions of the pharmaceutical drug and packaging labels for the drugs it intended to use in executions, the Department of Corrections said it was suspending its search for new supplies of execution drugs until the legislature adopted even broader secrecy laws.

Hester downplayed the importance of transparency concerns, calling a March 8 meeting of a legislative Freedom of Information Act Task Force “a waste of my time.” Refusing to attend the meeting, Hester said “[a]nything that they have to say on it I don't think has value.” In an email to the Associated Press, Dunham said, “If a state wanted to break the law and breach contracts with impunity and hide its misconduct from the public, [the Arkansas bill] is the type of bad-government law it would pass.”

2018 Midterm Elections: Governors in Moratorium States Re-Elected, Controversial California D.A. Ousted

The results of the November 6, 2018 mid-term elections reflected America's deeply divided views on capital punishment, as voters elected governors who pledged not to resume executions in the three states with death-penalty moratoriums, defeated an incumbent who tried to bring back capital punishment in a non-death-penalty state (click on graphic to enlarge), and re-elected governors who had vetoed legislation abolishing capital punishment in two other states. Continuing a national trend, voters in Orange County, California ousted their scandal-plagued top prosecutor, marking the ninth time since 2015 that local voters have replaced prosecutors in jurisdictions with the nation's largest county death rows.

In the three states with Governor-imposed death-penalty moratoriums, candidates who said they would continue execution bans or work to eliminate the state’s death penalty won easily. Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania who imposed the state’s moratorium on executions in 2015, was re-elected by with 57.6% of the vote. His challenger, Scott Wagner, who had promised to resume executions and had advocated a mandatory death penalty for school shootings, trailed badly with 40.8% of the vote. Oregon's incumbent Democratic governor Kate Brown, who continued the state’s death-penalty moratorium instituted in 2011 by then-governor John Kitzhaber, won re-election in a six candidate field with 49.4% of the vote, five percentage points higher than her Republican challenger Knute Buehler. In Colorado, Democratic congressman Jared Polis, who campaigned on the repeal of the state’s death penalty, won the governorship with 51.6% of the vote, outpacing Republican state treasurer Walker Stapleton, who received 44.7% of the vote. Democrats also took control of both houses of the Colorado legislature, increasing the likelihood that legislation to abolish the death penalty will be considered in the upcoming legislative session. Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner suffered an overwhelming election defeat at the hands of venture-capitalist J.B. Pritzker. Trailing badly in the polls, Rauner tried in May 2018 to condition passage of gun control legislation on reinstatement of the state’s death penalty. Pritzker outpolled Rauner by 54.0% to 39.3%.

On the other hand, two governors who prevented death-penalty repeal bills from going into effect in their states also won re-election. Nebraska's Republican Governor Pete Ricketts, who vetoed a bipartisan bill to abolish the state's death penalty in 2015 and then, after the legislature overrode his veto, personally bankrolled a successful state-wide referendum in 2016 to block the repeal, cruised to re-election with 59.4% of the vote. New Hampshire Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who vetoed the state’s death-penalty repeal bill in March 2018, won re-election with 52.4% of the vote. In Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis won the governorship against Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum, who had pledged, if elected, to suspend executions in Florida until he was sure the death-penalty system was nondiscriminatorily applied.

Local voters in Orange County replaced District Attorney Tony Rackauckas with a political rival, county supervisor Todd Spitzer. Rackauckas has been embroiled in a scandal involving the secret use of prison informants to obtain or manufacture confessions from suspects and then stonewalling investigation of the multi-decade illegal practice.  As of January 2013, Orange County had the seventh largest death row of any county in the U.S., and since then, it has imposed the fourth most death sentences of any county. 

Nebraska County Raises Property Taxes, Seeks State Bailout to Pay Wrongful Conviction Compensation

A Nebraska county has raised property taxes on its residents and asked the state legislature for a bailout to help pay a $28.1 million civil judgment it owes to six men and women wrongly convicted of rape and murder after having been threatened with the death penalty. The so-called Beatrice Six” (pictured) successfully sued Gage County for official misconduct that led to their wrongful convictions in the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson. The large damages award exceeds Gage County's entire annual budget by $1 million. This year, Gage County Supervisors passed a property tax increase of 11.76 cents per $100 of valuation—the maximum increase allowed without putting the issue to voters. The tax increase is expected to generate about $3.8 million next year, but county leaders worry about its impact on residents and have announced plans to ask lawmakers and Governor Pete Ricketts for state funding or a loan to help pay the civil judgment. Greg Lauby, a former attorney who organized residents to seek solutions to the problem, said, “If we continue on the path we’re on with no assistance from the state, it will drive at least some farmers to bankruptcy. We have homeowners who are struggling to put food on their table and clothe their children, and that’s an amount that will make a difference.”

Five of the Beatrice Six exonerees—James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, and Tom Winslow—agreed to plea bargains or pled no contest after prosecutors threatened them with the death penalty. A sixth, Joseph E. White, maintained his innocence, but was convicted at trial based on false testimony about his alleged involvement in the crime. The six were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008 after spending a combined 70 years in prison. The damages were awarded by a federal jury in 2016, just months before Nebraska voters passed a referendum to overturn the legislature's 2015 abolition of the death penalty and reinstate capital punishment. The county is responsible for the payment because prosecutors are immune from liability for wrongful convictions, and the sheriff involved in the case died in 2012. State Senator Ernie Chambers—one of the leaders of the death-penalty repeal efforts—said he opposes a state bailout. “This was strictly a county matter,” Chambers said. “They made their bed, now they have to sleep in it.” He added that, despite widespread coverage of the exonerations, Gage County voters overwhelmingly supported the reinstatement of the death penalty in 2016. “They haven’t learned a thing,” he said. Ultimately, as the McCook (Nebraska) Gazette wrote in an October 8, 2018 editorial, “[t]he Beatrice Six case and others like it spotlight the need to elect ethical and competent sheriffs and county attorneys and hold them accountable.”

Nebraska Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Three-Judge Death Sentencing

The Nebraska Supreme Court heard oral argument on August 30, 2018 in a case challenging the constitutionality of the state's capital sentencing procedure, which requires a three-judge panel to decide whether to impose a death sentence. Attorneys for death-row prisoner John Lotter said the state's three-judge sentencing violates the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments as applied to Florida's capital sentencing law in Hurst v. Florida. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Sixth Amendment required “a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.” “Nebraska is the only active death penalty state without a sentencing structure that allows a jury to make the central findings of fact to impose a death sentence,” said Rebecca Woodman, an attorney representing Lotter. Under Nebraska law, a jury determines whether aggravating factors are present, deciding if a defendant is eligible for the death penalty, but judges weigh those factors against mitigating factors and decide whether the defendant receives a death sentence or a sentence of life in prison. James Smith, solicitor general for Nebraska Attorney General's Office, argued that the sentencing scheme is constitutional, saying, “Finding aggravating factors is the fact that’s significant, the fact that juries must decide. The aggravating factors are what makes the defendant death-eligible.” Woodman disagreed: “Nebraska’s statutory scheme is unconstitutional because it bases a death sentence not on a jury’s verdict, but on judge-only findings of critical facts necessary to impose a sentence of death.” She also argued that the ruling should be applied retroactively, granting new sentencing hearings to everyone on Nebraska's death row. 

Nebraska Executes Carey Dean Moore in First Execution in 21 Years

On August 14, 2018, more than two decades after last putting a prisoner to death, Nebraska executed Carey Dean Moore (pictured). The execution—which used an untested drug formula of diazepam (the sedative Valium), fentanyl citrate (an opioid painkiller), cisatracurium besylate (a paralytic), and potassium chloride to stop the heart—took 23 minutes. It was the state's first execution ever by lethal injection. The first drug, diazepam, was administered at 10:24 am, and Moore, who had spent 38 years on death row, was pronounced dead at 10:47. Associated Press reporter Grant Schulte, a media witness who kept a timeline of events during the execution, reported that on three occasions prison officials dropped a curtain that prevented the witnesses from seeing portions of the execution, and that towards the end of the procedure Moore's face turned reddish, then purple. Joe Duggan, a journalist for the Omaha World-Herald, said the media witnesses could see the IV-line connected to Moore's arm, but could not see into the room where prison personnel controlled the flow of the drugs. "[I]t was not possible for us to know exactly when each drug was administered," he said. Brent Martin, reporting for Nebraska Radio Network, compared Moore's executions to the 13 executions he had previously witnessed in Missouri, saying "this was much longer." He also noted that the Nebraska team "approached it a bit differently" than had corrections officials in Missouri, where executions had "become routine." But, he said, "I didn't get any sense that it did not go other than how they planned it to go." Later, prison officials acknowledged the curtain had been lowered after the last drug was administered, preventing the reporters from witnessing Moore's reaction to that drug. Before the execution, Moore gave a written final statement in which he apologized to his younger brother, Don, for "bringing him down," and asked opponents of the death penalty to work on behalf of four men on Nebraska's death row who he said are innocent. Capital punishment has been a contentious issue in Nebraska. In 2015, the state legislature repealed the death penalty over the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts. Ricketts then sponsored a voter referendum to reinstate the death penalty, which succeeded in 2016. The state's last execution had been in December 1997, when Robert Williams was executed in the state's electric chair. The nearly 21-year period between executions in the longest time any state has gone between executions in modern U.S. history.

Drugmaker Sues Nebraska, as 15 Death-Penalty States Oppose Ruling Blocking Use of Drugs in Nevada

Less than a month after a Nevada court halted the execution of Scott Dozier in response to a lawsuit filed by generic-drug manufacturer Alvogen, another drug company has sued Nebraska, seeking to block the use of its medicines in an upcoming execution. The German-based pharmaceutical company Fresenius Kabi filed suit in Nebraska federal court on August 8, 2018 alleging that Nebraska intended to execute Carey Dean Moore on August 14 using drugs manufactured by the company that had been obtained "through improper or illegal means." The lawsuit said the company's distribution contracts with authorized wholesalers and distributors prohibit sales to departments of corrections, and it alleges that Nebraska obtained the drugs "in contradiction and contravention of the distribution contracts," most likely from an unauthorized supplier. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said the state's execution drugs “were purchased lawfully and pursuant to the State of Nebraska’s duty to carry out lawful capital sentences,” an assertion that cannot be verified because of the state's secrecy practices. The state has refused to identify the source of the drugs it intends to use in Moore's execution, but two of the drugs—the paralytic, cisatracurium, and potassium chloride, the drug used to stop the heart—are manufactured by Fresenius Kabi and only that company makes vials of potassium chloride in the size obtained by the state. 

Nebraska is one of fifteen death-penalty states that have joined in an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief in the Nevada Supreme Court on August 6, 2018 urging the court to overturn a restraining order that has prevented Nevada from carrying out executions using supplies of the drug, midazolam, produced by the pharmaceutical company Alvogen. Alvogen's suit alleges that Nevada had obtained the midazolam "by subterfuge" and “intentionally defrauded Alvogen’s distributor” by concealing its intention to use Alvogen’s medicine in Dozier‘s execution. The company's pleadings accused Nevada of “implicitly ma[king] the false representation that they had legitimate therapeutic rationale” for buying the drug and covering up its true intention by having the drug shipped to a state office several hundred miles away from the prison. In addition to issuing the restraining order, the Nevada trial court stayed Dozier's July 2018 execution. Like Fresenius Kabi, Alvogen alleges that the use of its products in executions would damage its corporate reputation and adversely affect investor and customer relations. The amicus brief was filed by 15 of the 30 other states that authorize capital punishment, all with Republican attorneys general—Arkansas, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. The nine death-penalty states with Democratic attorneys general did not join the pleading, nor did six other states with Republican attorneys general. The pleading claims, without providing any factual support, that Alvogen's lawsuit is the "latest front in the guerilla warfare being waged by anti-death-penalty activists and criminal defense attorneys to stop lawful executions." The state officials warn that, if the Nevada Supreme Court allows Dozier's stay of execution to stand, activists will "flood" the courts in other states with similar "meritless" challenges. In 2017, the drug distributor McKesson sued Arkansas to prevent the state from using a supply of the paralytic drug, vecuronium bromide, in executions, alleging that the state had deliberately misled the company to believe that the drug would be used for legitimate medical purposes. The brief asserts that "Alvogen’s meritless claims mirror those rejected by the Arkansas Supreme Court" in McKesson case. However, court records reflect that the Arkansas Supreme Court actually returned McKesson's case to the trial court for further evidentiary development and the case remained active until the expiration of the state's supply of vecuronium bromide rendered the case moot in the Spring of 2018.

With Drugs Expiring and Lawsuits Pending, Nebraska Prosecutors Seek to Expedite Execution

Facing an August 2018 expiration date for two of the drugs in Nebraska's experimental execution protocol, state Attorney General Douglas Peterson (pictured) has asked the Nebraska Supreme Court to expedite consideration of the prosecutor's request to set a July execution date for condemned prisoner Carey Dean Moore. The attorney general has petitioned the court to schedule Moore's execution for July 10 "or alternatively for a date in mid-July," despite the pendency of several lawsuits, which will not be resolved before August, that challenge various aspects of the state's authority and ability to carry out executions. Nebraska intends to use a four-drug execution protocol featuring three drugs—the opiod pain medication fentanyl, the sedative valium, and the paralytic drug cisatracurium—that have never before been used in an execution, followed by the heart-stopping drug potassium chloride. Potassium chloride has been described as feeling like liquid fire if administered to a person who has not been adequately anesthetized. Several challenges to the state's administration of the death penalty that have been filed by the ACLU of Nebraska are currently before the courts. These include a case on appeal before the Nebraska Supreme Court arguing that Governor Pete Ricketts and other state officials "improperly seized and exercised legislative power" when they allegedly "proposed, initiated, funded, organized, operated, and controlled the referendum campaign against" the death-penalty repeal law enacted by the state legislature over the governor's veto in 2015; and a second lawsuit challenging the state's lack of transparency surrounding execution drugs and team members, which is currently awaiting a trial-court ruling. The state Department of Corrections recently released some documents regarding execution team training in response to a public records request by the ACLU, but refused to provide documents indicating whether and to what extent execution team members had specialized experience or training in intravenous-access procedures or any documents relating to correspondence with doctors or experts regarding lethal injection. ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller said that the documents released by the state provide "no adequate assurance that we would be looking at a smooth, well-conducted execution," and remarked that "[t]he veil of secrecy that has dropped on all matters relating to the death penalty is very concerning." Nebraska has never carried out an execution using lethal injection. Moore, who was sentenced to death in 1980, is Nebraska's longest incarcerated death-row prisoner. At trial, he waived his right to a jury and presented no evidence in his defense. He recently fired his current appointed counsel and has asked to be executed. In a statement released in April, ACLU of Nebraska's Executive Director Danielle Conrad said, "it is precisely because [Moore] is not fighting that our institutions bear extra responsibility to check themselves by ensuring that the laws are followed and that an unlawful and potentially cruel and unusual execution does not take place." 

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