LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts brushed aside criticisms Tuesday that his proposed changes to Nebraska’s lethal injection procedure represent an affront to government transparency.
The administration announced revisions this week that would allow prison officials to withhold the identity of the supplier of lethal injection drugs. Following the lead of other death penalty states that have carried out executions in recent years, the governor believes the confidentiality provision would allow Nebraska to more easily obtain lethal injection drugs.
Death penalty critics denounced the move, saying it breaks with Nebraska’s tradition of transparency, especially in governmental matters as serious as capital punishment.
But the governor argued existing state law requires officials to protect the anonymity of members of the execution team. He said his proposed changes to the underlying protocol closely reflect the 2009 statute that established lethal injection.
He also pointed to part of the proposal that requires prison officials to notify the condemned inmate of the types and quantities of drugs to be used at least 60 days before the state seeks a death warrant to carry out an execution. That notice would give an inmate time to file legal challenges.
“So we’re really not changing anything with regard to confidentiality,” Ricketts said during a press conference at his State Capitol hearing room. “Claims of secrecy really just aren’t founded.”
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, disagreed with the governor’s explanation.
The lethal injection law allows the director of the Department of Correctional Services to appoint members of the execution team, but it refers to the lethal injection protocol for a listing of members by profession or role. The list includes corrections officers to escort the inmate to the death chamber as well as those who’ve been trained to administer IV lines.
The new protocol adds a pharmacist or a pharmaceutical chemist as potential members of the team. It also adds a line in a different section of the protocol spelling out confidentiality for the drug maker.
The current procedure does not list the pharmaceutical professionals as execution team members.
“There are new and arbitrary provisions that seek to cloak the process in secrecy, limiting the full accountability and transparency that currently exists at each stage of the process,” Conrad said.
The existing protocol clearly delineates the three drugs to be used in the lethal injection process, Conrad said. The revised protocol gives the Corrections director flexibility in deciding the types and doses of execution drugs to use.
The state has never used lethal injection, mostly because of difficulties obtaining one of the key drugs that is no longer manufactured in the United States. Nebraska last executed an inmate in 1997 when the execution method was the electric chair.
The state’s inability to carry out executions for almost 20 years factored in the Legislature’s 2015 vote to repeal capital punishment. Nearly 493,000 Nebraskans voted to restore the death penalty Nov. 8 while almost 320,000 voted to retain the repeal.