- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska officials will try to change the state’s death penalty protocol in a way that could allow suppliers of lethal injection drugs to remain hidden from public view, the corrections department announced Monday.

The proposal seeks to get around the logistical problems that have prevented the Department of Correctional Services from carrying out executions. The state corrections director would have the power to choose which drugs are used and to withhold any records that identify the department’s suppliers.

Condemned inmates would have to be told which drugs were chosen at least 60 days before the Nebraska attorney general’s office requests an execution warrant. A corrections department spokeswoman said the drugs used would become a public record when inmates are told, although the supplier’s identity could remain confidential.

Nebraska’s attempt to shield its suppliers from public scrutiny follows similar moves by other states, which did so through their legislatures. Mississippi and Virginia passed laws earlier this year; Arkansas, North Carolina, Texas and Wyoming did so last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Certain lethal injection drugs have become virtually impossible to obtain in the United States because companies, fearing a public backlash, have refused to sell them.

Nebraska is proposing to change its protocol through an administrative rule change overseen by the corrections department, a part of Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 30 at the State Office Building in Lincoln.

In a news release, the department said the proposal would allow officials “to obtain available drugs and utilize the most current methods to administer them.”

Nebraska’s last execution took place in 1997, using the electric chair. The state switched to lethal injection after the Nebraska Supreme Court declared the electric chair unconstitutional, but officials have never used the current three-drug protocol.

The current requirements call for sodium thiopental to render inmates unconscious, pancuronium bromide to paralyze their muscles and stop their breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Nebraska has struggled to obtain sodium thiopental ever since its latest supply expired in December 2013.

Nebraska voters reinstated the death penalty earlier this month through a ballot measure partially financed by Ricketts. The vote overturned the Legislature’s decision to abolish capital punishment in 2015 over Ricketts’ veto.

Nebraska paid more than $54,000 last year to a company based in India, Harris Pharma LLP, for the necessary lethal injection drugs. Attempts to import the drugs failed, however, because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that they had no legally approved use in the United States. Nebraska officials asked supplier Chris Harris to refund the payment, but Harris declined.

Death penalty opponents said they hadn’t yet read the proposal but raised concerns that it would allow the state to shroud its process in secrecy.

“When it comes to taking the life of a person - the most serious, solemn act the state can undertake - the process ought to be transparent,” said Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who sponsored the 2015 repeal law. “The public has a right to know every aspect of it.”

Lincoln attorney Jerry Soucie, who has represented several Nebraska death-row inmates, said the proposal raises unanswered questions that may have to be resolved in court. For instance, can the Department of Correctional Services enact a rule that contradicts the open-records laws approved by the Legislature?

Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a prominent Republican death penalty opponent, said he still believes Nebraska will never again carry out an execution because of the numerous legal hurdles.

“This will end up costing taxpayers even more money, and at the end of the day, it still won’t work,” Coash said.

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