Governor says Nebraska has ordered new death penalty drugs

May 14, 2015, 7:30 PM

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s Republican governor is taking new steps to resume executions in a state that hasn’t imposed the death penalty since 1997, as lawmakers look seriously at abolishing capital punishment.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday evening that state officials have bought all three drugs required to carry out executions. Nebraska lost its ability to execute prisoners when its supply of sodium thiopental, a required lethal injection drug, expired in December 2013.

The announcement comes one day before lawmakers are scheduled to debate a death penalty repeal measure that has gained more support than usual. The bill won first-round approval with a veto-proof majority in April, but two more votes are required before it goes to Ricketts, a death-penalty supporter.

Some opponents have argued that Nebraska should abolish capital punishment because it has only wasted money and created a false promise for victims’ families. The state hasn’t executed anyone since 1997, and some prisoners have been on death row for decades.

Nebraska has only carried out four executions since 1973, partly because of repeated legal challenges.

Ricketts and his corrections director, Scott Frakes, said the state now possesses one of the three lethal injection drugs that state law requires for executions and will receive the other two in the near future. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has said three of Nebraska’s 11 death-row inmates have exhausted all of their appeals.

“The functionality of the death penalty in Nebraska has been a management issue that I have promised to resolve,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts said the department has already obtained potassium chloride, a drug that stops the heart, and has bought the other two drugs — sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide — from a distributor in West Bengal, India. Sodium thiopental serves as an anesthetic, and pancuronium bromide is a muscle relaxant that induces paralysis.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the state ordered the drugs over the past few weeks from HarrisPharma, a distributor that has sold to state officials before. The last purchase was made this week.

Defense attorneys for Nebraska’s death-row inmates have raised legal questions about the company before. One lawyer argued that Chris Harris, the company’s owner, sold drugs that were only meant to be used as testing samples, and was not authorized to do so.

Because he was not allowed do so, the defense attorney argued that the drug was stolen property and Nebraska shouldn’t be allowed to use it in executions.

Nebraska Solicitor General Jim Smith, who handled previous death penalty cases, said those arguments were later rejected. The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the argument wasn’t a valid challenge in a death penalty case under state law.

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Governor says Nebraska has ordered new death penalty drugs