Nebraska was scheduled on Tuesday to carry out the US’ first execution employing the opioid fentanyl as part of a four-drug combination that has never before been used.
The powerful synthetic painkiller — a key cause of death in the US’ opioid and heroin abuse epidemic — was to be the second injection administered to Carey Dean Moore, sentenced to death for two 1979 murders. Moore is not contesting his execution, the Midwestern state’s first in 21 years, but a last-minute legal challenge filed on his behalf could still cause a delay.
Underscoring the difficulty that states across the country have had in obtaining previously employed execution drugs, three of the four intravenous medications that Nebraska is scheduled to use have never before been used for lethal injections.
It is a pivotal test for the state, which last performed an execution in 1997 with the electric chair.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday asked the state’s highest court to delay Moore’s execution, the Omaha World-Herald newspaper reported.
The civil rights group claimed that Moore’s death sentence had been automatically commuted to a life sentence in 2015, when the Nebraska state legislature abolished the death penalty, the newspaper reported.
Nebraska voters reinstated capital punishment by referendum in the Nov. 2016 election.
Moore has been on death row for 38 years and has said that he does not want further delays.
In 1980, while in his early 20s, he was sentenced to death for the killings of two Omaha taxi drivers five days apart.
Moore admitted to shooting to death the first driver during a robbery with his brother.
In 2007, he publicly wrote that the second killing occurred at the end of a cab ride, because “I had to foolishly prove to myself that I could take a man’s life all by myself.”
Nebraska’s four-drug lethal injection mix consists of the sedative diazepam to render unconsciousness, the painkiller fentanyl citrate, the muscle relaxer cisatracurium to stop an inmate’s breathing, and, finally, potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Only potassium chloride has been used before in executions. Drug manufacturers and providers have been increasingly hostile to selling to states to prevent their medications from being used for executions.
States across the country have had to scramble to find the drugs that they need, with varying degrees of success, or to find alternative drugs and establish new protocols.
Fentanyl killed more than 20,000 people in the US in 2016. It is 50 times more powerful than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine.
Nevada’s plan to use it had drawn criticism from medical experts and activists, who called it a dangerous human experiment.
So far this year, 15 inmates have been executed in the US, the Death Penalty Information Center said.
Eight were executed in Texas, by far the most of any state. Texas uses only one drug, pentobarbital — a sedative that causes respiratory arrest in high doses.
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