Nebraska buys lethal injection drugs, as lawmakers mull abolishing death penalty

The governor of Nebraska announced the purchase of more death penalty drugs, one day before the state legislature debates abolishing the death sentence. No one has been executed in Nebraska since 1997.

Nati Harnik/AP
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha (c.) follows second-round debate, on Friday at the Legislature in Lincoln, Neb., on a bill to abolish the death penalty.

Nebraska state lawmakers began debating a bipartisan bill to abolish the death penalty Friday, one day after Gov. Pete Ricketts announced he purchased two of three drugs the state needs to execute inmates on death row.

The legislature has already voted once on Legislative Bill 268, which would replace the death penalty with life without parole, last month in a 30 to 13 vote. Two more rounds of voting are required before the bill would move to Governor Rickett's desk. He has promised to veto the bill if it reaches him, but 30 'yes' votes would override his veto power.

There are 11 inmates on death row in Nebraska, which hasn't executed an inmate since 1997. Three of the inmates have exhausted their appeals, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.

Ricketts and Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, announced yesterday that the state ordered ordered sodium thiopental, used to knock out the inmate, and pancuronium bromide, which causes paralysis, from HarrisPharma. The state already has potassium chloride, the third drug in the cocktail used for executions, according to a statement from Ricketts's office. 

"The functionality of the death penalty in Nebraska has been a management issue that I have promised to resolve," said Ricketts in the statement. "Through the work of Director Frakes, the department has purchased the drugs that are necessary to carry out the death penalty in Nebraska in the near future."

If LB 268 passes, Nebraska would become the first Republican-dominated state to abolish the death penalty in decades.

The unique nature of the Nebraska state legislature has helped the bill move forward, according to some elected officials. The legislature is officially nonpartisan and candidates run without party affiliation, but the party allegiances of lawmakers are widely known. Seventeen Republicans voted in favor of the bill last month. One of them, state Sen. Al Davis, said in an interview with Al Jazeera America that the bill has been able to progress this far "because people are free from their party obligations."

"The people that serve here are not reliant on a party to tell them how to vote," he said. "We're able to talk these things through from our own experiences and perspectives."

States have found it increasingly difficult to obtain the drugs necessary for lethal injections. The last US manufacturer of sodium thiopental stopped making the drug in 2010, and the European Union has banned the drug for export. These restrictions have seen states turn to alternatives, including the firing squad and alternate drugs that caused several botched executions last year. The Supreme Court will decide whether the use of one such drug, midazolam, violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Difficulties with the shortage of lethal injection drugs contributed to 2014 seeing the lowest number of executions in US in 20 years.

And Nebraskans have voiced concern over the potency of the drugs. Eric Berger, constitutional law professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln, said that simply naming the company the drugs were purchased from doesn't answer the safety questions.

"There's a lot more we need to know about this drug provider and the specific batches of drugs to know whether they're safe," said Mr. Berger in an interview with the Journal Star.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, an independent in the state legislature who has worked to eliminate the death penalty in the state for years, told Al Jazeera he hopes other conservative states will follow the Nebraska legislature's lead.

"If Nebraska is viewed as backward, as it really is, and it would take this step, there could be people who say, ‘If those people did it, everybody should be able to do it," said Senator Chambers.

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