Fentanyl, a widely prescribed opioid, was among the drugs that Nebraska prison personnel administered to execute an inmate on Tuesday.
Sixty-year-old Carey Dean Moore had been found guilty in the slaying of two Omaha taxi drivers in 1979. According to The Washington Post, he died 23 minutes after receiving a combination of four drugs. It was the first time fentanyl had been used in an execution. The last Nebraska execution, in 1997, involved an electric chair.
One of the witnesses to Tuesday's state-sanctioned murder was Bill Schammert of the CBS News affiliate KOLN. He reported that Moore, after receiving the drugs, “mouthed several words … including 'I love you' several times.” The inmate then “looked straight at the ceiling and closed his eyes.” He “started breathing heavily” a minute later, and his “chest stopped moving” four minutes after that, according to Schammert. The reporter wrote that “Moore’s face turn(ed) red, then purple, (with) no change in facial expression.”
In his last written statement, the prisoner admitted that he committed the crimes. He called for the release of other inmates who he thought were innocent. Moore reportedly told his lawyer that he wished to be executed, rather than continue as one of Nebraska's 12 death-row prisoners.
A pair of lawsuits filed by pharmaceutical manufacturers urged the courts to impose a temporary restraining order to stop the killing. Fresenius Kabi, a German company, accused Nebraska officials of illegally purchasing two of the drugs administered to Moore: potassium chloride, which makes the heart stop beating; and cisatracurium besylate, which paralyzes muscles. A federal judge denied the firm's plea, and a circuit court rejected an appeal.
The second suit, filed by Sandoz, demanded that Nebraska reveal which drugs it planned to use. Though a judge turned down the firm's request, the information was made public.
Drug makers have made it clear that they do not want their products to be employed in executions. Last month, as Nevada officials prepared to kill an inmate with a cocktail that included fentanyl, a pharmaceutical company sued to delay the procedure due to questions about how the state got another drug.
The substances “are difficult, if nearly impossible, to obtain,” Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes acknowledged in an affidavit.
The use of fentanyl in an execution is particularly controversial because the opioid, which is purportedly 50 times stronger than heroin, is taking the lives of many Americans. The musicians Prince and Tom Petty have been among the victims.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of synthetic opioid deaths in the United States doubled from 2015 to 2016. More than 150 Nebraskans died last year from overdosing on the drugs. Doctors sometimes prescribe fentanyl as a painkiller, and many people purchase the addictive substance illegally.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, declared that “there's no particular reason why one would use fentanyl” in executions. He told the Post: “No one has used it before, and we've had hundreds and hundreds of executions by injection. That suggests that the state is using fentanyl because it can get its hands on it.”
In a court filing, Dunham wrote: “It's somewhat ironic that at the same time that the Justice Department and states are talking about how dangerous fentanyl is, and how it's created a national public health emergency, that states are now turning to it as a supposedly safe way of killing prisoners.”
Nebraska authorities told the court that the drugs “were obtained from a licensed pharmacy in the United States and were not obtained by any fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.” They said that a lengthy search involved “contact(ing) at least 40 potential suppliers and six other states.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the United States is one of the six countries that conduct 95 percent of the world's executions. The others on the list are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iraq.
They are among the 53 nations that continue to impose the death penalty. The only modern, industrialized countries with the dubious distinction are the United States, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. The barbaric practice no longer occurs in Europe, with one exception: the dictatorship of Belarus.
Capital punishment is still common in the Caribbean, with recent executions by St. Lucia, Barbados and Antigua. In the past three years, four countries (Burkina Faso, Guinea, Benin, and Madagascar) have abolished the death penalty.
Thirty-one U.S. states still have capital punishment on the books, although many of them have not carried out an execution in years. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty pointed out that the arcane form of punishment has “steadily been declining in recent years,” but “a handful of states” are still using it.
“The flaws and failures of this system are more apparent than ever,” the coalition wrote. The organization cited “racial bias,” the fact that some innocent people are killed, and the cost of executions, among other issues.