Nebraska

Nebraska

Nebraska Proposes Untried Lethal-Injection Combination as Nevada Court Halts Execution With Similar Drugs

As Nebraska announced its intention to use a never-before-tried four-drug execution combination featuring the opiod pain medication fentanyl and the paralytic drug cisatracurium, a Nevada judge issued a stay of execution that put off the nation's first attempted execution using those drugs. On November 9, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services provided notice to death-row prisoner Jose Sandoval that it intends to execute him using a combination of the drugs diazepam (Valium), fentanyl citrate, cisatracurium besylate, and potassium chloride. Later that day, Clark County (Las Vegas) District Judge Jennifer Togliatti granted a request by lawyers for the Nevada Department of Corrections to stay the scheduled November 14 execution of Scott Dozier to permit them to appeal her order directing the state to remove cisatracurium from its also untried execution protocol of diazepam, fentanyl, and the paralytic. Dozier, who has waived his appeals and asked to be executed, is only contesting the state's method of execution. The judge issued her order after considering medical evidence that the cisatracurium could cause Dozier to experience "air hunger" and suffocate to death, while masking signs that he was conscious and suffering during the execution. Doctors testified that a paralytic drug would be unnecessary if the other two drugs, fentanyl and diazepam, were administered properly. In staying the execution to permit Nevada to appeal to the state supreme court, Judge Togliatti said: "They're going to have to be the court to make that determination that we as a state are OK with a paralytic." Nebraska law requires the state to give a prison notice of the drugs to be used in the execution at least sixty days in advance of issuing a death warrant. The state attorney general's office has indicated it will ask the Nebraska Supreme Court to issue a warrant after that time has passed. State Senator Ernie Chambers, one of the leaders of the Nebraska legislature's repeal of the state's death-penalty statute and its override of Governor Pete Ricketts's veto of the measure, criticized the notice as politically motivated and called the timing of its issuance "suspicious." The notice was issued almost a year to the day after the voters brought back the death-penalty law in a voter iniative bankrolled by Rickett, and as the governor gears up for a re-election campaign in 2018. Sandoval is currently unrepresented. The Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, which typically represents death-row prisoners, cannot represent Sandoval because it represented other defendants in the case. But the commission's executive director, Jeffery Pickens, said Sandoval "has to be given some sort of opportunity to challenge [the drug protocol]."

Nebraska Death Penalty Challenge Unresolved, as Defendant Fires Lawyers, Pleads Guilty

A Nebraska trial judge has permitted Patrick Schroeder (pictured)—whose lawyers from the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy had challenged the constitutionality of the state's death penalty—to fire his lawyers, withdraw the challenge, and plead guilty to first-degree murder. The court deferred until August 22 whether to also permit Schroeder to waive his right to have a jury decide whether aggravating circumstance exist that could make him eligible for the death penalty. The court reappointed public defenders Sarah Newell and Todd Lancaster to represent Schroeder in the penalty-phase proceedings. Schroeder was serving a life sentence for a prior murder when he choked Terry Berry, his cellmate at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, to death in April. Authorities found a ripped-up note in the trash can of their cell, which read:  “You really need to get Terry Berry out of my cell before he gets hurt.” In June, Schroeder’s lawyers had filed a motion to bar the death penalty in his case, arguing that its application in Nebraska is unconstitutionally arbitrary and that the state's sentencing procedures violate the U.S. Supreme Court's 2016 decision in Hurst v. Florida requiring that juries find all facts necessary to impose the death penalty. The motion argued that Nebraska's law is inconsistently applied geographically, with only four of the state's 93 counties imposing death sentences, and is racially discriminatory. Eight of the nine men sent to death row in the last 15 years in the state have been defendants of color. Schroeder's lawyers also asserted that Nebraska's three-judge sentencing panel violated Hurst because it required that judges, rather than a jury, determine whether aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances and justify imposing the death penalty. Only a handful of states permit judicial death sentencing without a prior unanimous jury finding that aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigation. Courts in Florida and Delaware have already struck down those states' statutes, holding that the weighing process is a factfinding that must be made by a jury. Alabama's appeal courts overturned a trial court ruling that its judicial factfinding was unconstitutional. The motion also had challenged the state's execution protocol as an unlawful delegation of legislative powers that gives prison directors overly broad discretion to determine the types and quantities of drugs to be used in the lethal-injection process. Schroeder’s waiver leaves the constitutionality of Nebraska's sentencing statute unresolved. The Nebraska legislature repealed the state's death penalty in 2015 over the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts, but Nebraska voters restored the statute in a 2016 referendum. The state last carried out an execution in 1997. [UPDATE: The Nebraska Supreme Court has agreed to review an appeal by brought by death-row prisoner Marco Torres to determine whether his challenge to the constitutionality of the state's death-penalty statute under Hust v. Florida was timely raised and can be decided by the courts.]

Execution Drugs Three States Attempted to Illegally Import Have Now Expired

Three thousand vials of the anesthetic sodium thiopental that three states attempted to illegally import into the United States for use in executions have now expired, according to an investigative report by BuzzFeed News. Arizona, Nebraska, and Texas each purchased 1000 vials of the drug in 2015 from a questionable supplier in India called Harris Pharma, despite warnings from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that importation of the drug would violate federal law. Citing documents obtained from the FDA through a public records request, BuzzFeed reports that the sodium thiopental in the shipments expired in May 2017. The FDA confiscated the sodium thiopental Arizona and Texas attempted to bring into the country after U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seized the shipments at airports in Phoenix and Houston. Federal officials justified their action saying that a 2012 court order "requires the FDA to refuse admission to the US any shipment of foreign manufactured sodium thiopental being offered for importation that appears to be an unapproved new drug or a misbranded drug." FedEx halted Nebraska's shipment in India because of "improper or missing paperwork." Harris Pharma, the company that sold the drugs, claimed to have manufactured the sodium thiopental itself, but the facilities it registered with the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration were not equipped to produce pharmaceuticals. Harris had, in fact, purchased the drug from another Indian manufacturer and resold it to the three states at a substantially inflated price. The sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental halted production in 2011 over ethical concerns about the use of the product in executions. In January 2017, Texas sued the FDA in federal court over the agancy's continued detention of the drugs without having issued a formal decision on the disposition of the drugs. The FDA issued a final order in April 2017 refusing to release the drugs to Arizona and Texas, and Texas has challenged that ruling. A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said the state's lawsuit against the FDA would continue, despite the expiration of the drugs. Last year, a Texas official whose name was redacted from official documents said in an affidavit that the state, "intends to continue importing thiopental sodium from the same foreign source, and with the same labeling, as the entry that FDA is currently detaining."

Voters Oust Prosecutors in Outlier Death Penalty Counties, Retain Governors Who Halted Executions

Prosecutors in three counties known for their outlier practices on the death penalty were defeated by challengers running on reform platforms, while voters in Oregon and Washington re-elected governors who acted to halt executions. In Hillsborough County, Florida, Democrat Andrew Warren defeated Republican incumbent Mark Ober (pictured, l.). Warren pledged to seek the death penalty less often and establish a unit to uncover wrongful convictions. In Harris County, Texas, incumbent Devon Anderson (pictured, r.) was defeated by Democratic challenger Kim Ogg. Ogg ran on a platform of broad criminal justice reform and had received support from the Black Lives Matter movement. Harris County leads the nation in executions and is second only to Los Angeles in the number of people on its death row. Ogg had said that the death penalty had created "a terrible image for our city and our county" and pledged that, "[u]nder an Ogg admninistration, you will see very few death penalty prosecutions." Brandon Falls, District Attorney of Jefferson County, Alabama, lost his seat to Charles Todd Henderson, who does not support the death penalty and said he plans to “bring about real criminal justice reform.” Hillsborough, Harris, and Jefferson all rank among the 2% of U.S. counties responsible for a majority of death row inmates in the U.S., and were among the 16 most prolific death sentencing counties in the U.S. between 2010-2015. “People are scrutinizing their local criminal justice systems, and people are realizing how much power state attorneys have, and they are seeing elections as a way to change those results,” Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University, said. In gubernatorial elections, voters re-elected governors who had halted executions in their states. Washington voters re-elected Governor Jay Inslee, who imposed a death penalty moratorium, and Oregon voters gave a full term to Governor Kate Brown, who had extended her predecessor's moratorium and pledged to keep the moratorium in effect if elected. In North Carolina, voters defeated incumbent Governor Pat McCrory, who had supported efforts to repeal the state's Racial Justice Act. 

Pro-Death Penalty Referenda Prevail in 3 States; Kansas Retains 4 Justices Attacked for Death Penalty Decisions

Voters in three states approved pro-death penalty ballot questions Tuesday, while in a fourth, voters turned back an effort to oust four Justices who had been criticized for granting defendants relief in capital cases. Amid widespread agreement that California's death penalty system is broken, the state's voters rejected Proposition 62, which would have abolished the state's death penalty and replaced it with life without possibility of parole plus restitution, and narrowly approved a competing ballot initiative, Proposition 66, which seeks to limit state court death penalty appeals and expedite executions. With 99% of precincts reporting, Prop 62 trailed 54%-46%, with 3,964,862 Yes votes and 4,643,413 No votes. Prop 66 prevailed 51%-49%, with 4,203,801 Yes votes and 4,051,749 No votes. Earlier in the day, Nebraska voters, in a closely watched referendum, overturned the state legislature's repeal of the state's capital punishment statute and reinstated the death penalty. With 99% percent of precincts reporting, Nebraskans voted in favor of the death penalty by a margin of 61%-39%, casting 443,506 "repeal" votes on Referendum 426 to overturn the legislature's abolition of the death penalty, against 280,587 "retain" votes to keep the legislative repeal in place. Wednesday morning, Governor Pete Ricketts pledged to take action to carry out executions in Nebraska, while long-time death penalty opponent, State Senator Ernie Chambers, vowed to introduce a new bill in the next legislative session to abolish capital punishment. In Oklahoma, voters by a nearly 2-1 margin approved State Question 776, which constitutionalizes the state legislature's power to adopt any execution method not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution and prevents Oklahoma's state courts from declaring the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment. With 100% of precincts reporting, Question 776 prevailed 66%-34%, with 941,336 Yes votes and 477,057 No votes. The death penalty was also a central focus in judicial retention elections in Kansas, where pro-death penalty groups targeted four justices of the state supreme court and spent more than $1 million in an attempt to oust them for their votes overturning several Kansas death sentences. Voters retained all four Justices. Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, speaking on behalf of the challenged justices, said "The supreme court’s ability to make decisions based on the rule of law—and the people’s constitution—has been preserved." Ryan Wright of Kansans for Fair Courts, which opposed the efforts to remove the Justices, added “Kansans have sent a very clear message . . . : hands off our court.” 

EDITORIALS: Lincoln Journal Star Urges Nebraska Voters to End State's Death Penalty

Saying the death penalty is "too fallible to endure," the Lincoln Journal Star has called on Nebraska voters to end capital punishment in the state. In two editorials published in connection with the upcoming statewide death penalty ballot referendum on November 8, the paper urged Nebraskans to retain the legislature's death penalty repeal bill. The predominantly Republican legislature voted to repeal the state's death penalty in May 2015 and then, a few days later, overrode a veto by Governor Pete Ricketts. The Governor, in turn, launched a successful petition drive to place the repeal issue on the ballot. The Journal Star's first editorial focused on the "bottom line" question that, "[t]o support the death penalty, you must be willing to take the chance that the state will execute an innocent person." In addressing that question, the paper highlighted notable exonerations from Beatrice, Nebraska and elsewhere. The editorial explained that, in the largest false confession case in American history, "[t]he 'Beatrice 6' were railroaded into prison for a murder they did not commit. Finally DNA showed someone else committed the crime. Now Gage County is on the hook for $28.1 million in damages." The paper also discussed the exoneration of former Air Force sergeant Ray Krone, who—with no criminal record—was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Arizona. "If it happened to Krone," the paper said, “it can happen to anybody.” In a second editorial, the Journal Star presented what it called the "powerful" conservative argument against capital punishment. The death penalty, conservatives say, "is an extraordinary example of government overreach that costs inordinate amounts of money," violates "the sanctity of life," "[s]ometimes ... delivers erroneous results, and for years on end it delivers no results at all." A recent study found that the death penalty costs Nebraska taxpayers $14.6 million per year, even though the state has not had an execution in nearly 20 years. The paper said: "All this spending siphons away money that could and should be put to use more effectively in protecting public safety. Five hundred police chiefs were asked in 1995 and 2008 to rank the tools they found most effective in fighting violent crime, [former Lincoln Police Chief Allen] Curtis wrote. 'The death penalty came in absolutely last.'" The editorial concluded, "[t]houghtful conservatives who take the time to research the issue will vote on Nov. 8 to retain the law that eliminates the death penalty and replaces it with life in prison."

STUDIES: Nebraska's Death Penalty Costs $14.6 Million Per Year

A new study of Nebraska's death penalty found that the state spends $14.6 million per year to maintain its capital punishment system. The study, The Economic Impact of the Death Penalty on the State of Nebraska: A Taxpayer Burden?, also estimates that each death penalty prosecution cost Nebraska's taxpayers about $1.5 million more than a life without parole prosecution. At a press conference announcing the study, principal investigator Dr. Ernest Goss—an economics professor at Creighton University and founder of the conservative think tank, Goss & Associates—presented the findings as a strong economic argument in favor of retaining Nebraska's recent repeal of the death penalty. Nebraska voters will decide in November whether to keep the repeal bill, which was passed by the legislature in May 2015 over the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts, or overturn the legislature's decision and reinstate the death penalty. "If economics is your major factor, you should vote to retain," Dr. Goss said. He explained that conducting the study had altered his own views on capital punishment, which he supported before he learned about the economic costs. 1,842 homicides were committed in Nebraska between 1973 and 2014, with prosecutors seeking death 119 times and obtaining 33 death sentences. Of those sentenced to death, the study found that 13 had their sentences reduced, six died in prison, three were executed, one sentence was vacated, and ten are still appealing their sentences. Examining costs on a national level, the study said that death penalty states spend about 3.54% of overall state budgets on criminal justice, while states without the death penalty spend about 2.93%. On average, the death penalty costs a state $23.2 million more per year than alternative sentences. The study was commissioned by the organization Retain a Just Nebraska, which supports retaining the Nebraska legislature's repeal of the state's death penalty. (Click image to enlarge.)

Nebraska Exonerees Awarded $28 Million, Prosecutor Says Case Made Him Oppose Death Penalty

A federal court jury has awarded six Nebraska exonerees (pictured, at their exoneration) $28 million in damages for official misconduct that led to their wrongful convictions in the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson. The "Beatrice Six," as the group came to be known, were falsely accused of the killing and threatened with the death penalty. Five of the defendants—James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, and Tom Winslow—agreed to plea bargains or pled no contest to avoid possible death sentences. The sixth—Joseph E. White—demanded a jury trial, and was convicted. All six were exonerated by DNA evidence tested in 2008. On July 6, the jury found that the Gage County, Nebraska Sheriff's Office had been reckless in its investigation and had fabricated evidence. The $28 million damages award exceeds the entire annual budget of Gage County by $1 million, and the county does not have an insurance policy to cover court judgments resulting from law enforcement misconduct. At a press conference on July 8, Randall Rintour, the Gage County prosecutor who reopened the Beatrice Six case in 2008, said the case had changed his views on the death penalty. “It happened right here in our backyard. We can’t say it’s not possible to make a mistake because we did, we made a huge one," he said. "Our ability to execute all the ... murderers we can is not worth the death of one innocent individual at the hands of the state." State Sen. Burke Harr, a former Douglas County deputy prosecutor, joined Rintour in urging Nebraskans to retain the state's repeal of the death penalty, which is the subject of a November referendum. Sen. Harr, one of 30 legislators who voted in favor of repeal, said, "The death penalty is just that, it’s forever. There’s no coming back."

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