LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The bungled execution of a death-row inmate in Oklahoma is casting new attention on the death penalty in Nebraska, where capital punishment remains on the books but no one has been executed in nearly two decades.
Nebraska’s supply of sodium thiopental - a required lethal injection drug - expired in December, leaving the state with no approved way to carry out executions. The drug is nearly impossible to buy because like most drugs used in executions, it’s produced by European-based companies that are prohibited from exporting drugs used for capital punishment.
The hurdles in Nebraska have reached a point that even some death-penalty supporters believe the state will never execute another inmate.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said he considers the death penalty an appropriate punishment for the most heinous crimes. But with constant legal challenges and no approved way to carry out executions, he said, the state is wasting money.
“Without a means to do it, we really don’t have a death penalty,” Krist said. “If you don’t have the capacity to do it, then having it on the books just means an extensive appeals process. It sets the state up for a very expensive, long-term legal fight. It just seems to me … that life in prison without parole is the cleanest and least expensive option.”
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who opposes the death penalty, said he’s most bothered by the cost of appeals and the constant rehashing of heinous crimes, which keeps offenders in the public eye and makes it harder for their victims’ families to find closure.
“If any other program in government were as costly and inefficient as the death penalty, we wouldn’t have it,” Coash said. “I think Nebraska has executed its last inmate. The guys who are on death row now are going to die there” without being executed.
Nebraska has sentenced 33 offenders to death since 1973, and of those inmates, three have been executed. The last was Robert E. Williams, who was electrocuted in 1997. Williams confessed to killing three women and trying to kill a fourth during a three-day rampage in 1977 that crossed into three states. Nebraska has 11 men currently sitting on death row.
Ardent death penalty supporters argue the punishment is warranted for crimes that are especially heinous, or those that involved children as victims. Some of the state’s current death row inmates were convicted of sexual assaults, robberies or torturing victims during the murders. Inmates have numerous chances to appeal their sentences, often over decades.
Gov. Dave Heineman held firm last week in his support for the death penalty, saying the botched Oklahoma execution was unfortunate but threatened to overshadow the woman who was murdered. Clayton Lockett was convicted for the 1999 killing of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman; authorities say Lockett shot Neiman twice and then watched as one of his two accomplices buried her alive.
Oklahoma officials said Friday that some of the drugs used in its execution didn’t enter Lockett’s system because his vein collapsed. Medical officials tried for nearly an hour to find a vein in Lockett’s arms, legs and neck, before inserting an IV into his groin. The collapsed vein wasn’t noticed for 21 minutes, at which time the execution was halted. Lockett was pronounced dead of a heart attack 10 minutes later.
Nebraska Department of Correctional Services spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said the state’s current lethal-injection protocol requires a specialist to examine a condemned inmate at least 48 hours before a scheduled execution to find “appropriate locations” to insert a catheter.
Smith declined to say Friday whether state officials planned to change its current protocol, which calls for the sodium thiopental to render an inmate unconscious, plus two other drugs to induce paralysis and stop the heart.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha has fought for decades to abolish the death penalty. Lawmakers passed his repeal measure once, in 1979, but then-Gov. Charles Thone vetoed it.
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