Nebraska Politics

What Is Going on with the Execution in Nebraska?

In four days, Nebraska is scheduled to execute Carey Moore by lethal injection. Moore murdered two taxi drivers in Omaha in 1979. He is not fighting his own execution, saying he believes he will be forgiven by Christ upon his death. Because he is not fighting it, the main legal avenue that typically delays or stops an execution is not on the table–Moore is the one who has standing to file a lawsuit, and he doesn’t want to. Moore’s lawyer asked to be removed from the case because he cannot provide a competent defense under the circumstances. A friend of mine compared the execution of this compliant prisoner to one of the governor’s canned pheasant hunts, “where the birds are trapped for him and he just has to shoot from a few feet away while they are disoriented from being under nets for who knows how long.”

The death penalty saga in Nebraska is complicated, but here it is in a nutshell.

In 2015, the Nebraska legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, thanks to a bipartisan effort that was a model of solidarity in a fractured nation. Governor Pete Ricketts, heir to the Ricketts Ameritrade fortune, vetoed the abolition. The legislature voted again, securing enough of a majority to override the veto, including a significant number of Republican lawmakers. Ricketts then personally funded a ballot initiative to reinstate the death penalty and also funded far-right, pro-death challengers to the conservative legislators who had defied him. Opinions about the death penalty aside, this move alarmed many Nebraskans as an intrusion on the separation of powers. Billionaire governors are not supposed to personally pay to secure legislation they couldn’t win in their role as governor, nor should they personally pay to get compliant lackeys elected.

Illustration of Governor Ricketts from an “Erniegram,” one of the self-published zines that long-time anti-death penalty senator Ernie Chambers circulates.

So we have the death penalty again, but Ricketts ran up against the small problem of how to get the drugs to kill somebody. So first he paid over $50,000 of state funds to a broker in India to deliver sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide to the state. However, this is illegal, and the federal government blocked the sale–and Nebraska never got the money for these illegal drugs back. That’s right, Ricketts lost $50,000 of our tax money trying to purchase murder drugs illegally.

Now in 2018, Ricketts and Corrections Director Scott Frakes are planning to use an experimental, untested four-drug cocktail to execute Moore. Where did they get these drugs? They won’t say, not even under court order. How is this legal, you may be wondering? It almost certainly would not stand up to a court challenge, but Moore is the one who would need to challenge it, and he is resigned to his own death.

Earlier this year the Ricketts administration asked the courts to allow them to expedite the execution because the mystery murder cocktail was going to expire, and they specifically asked the court to let them kill Moore on July 10—which just happens to be the birthday of State Senator Ernie Chambers, the civil rights activist and Nebraska folk hero who has tirelessly led the charge against the death penalty for 38 years and regularly humiliates Ricketts, whom he sees as corrupt fool and religious hypocrite.

Instead, the court pushed it to August, so on Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. Moore is scheduled to be strapped on a gurney and injected with an untested science experiment that was almost certainly illegally procured and likely improperly stored. Although Nebraska’s execution does not feature Midazolam, there are a number of recent executions where witnesses described suffering on the part of the prisoner. Supreme Justice Sotomayo questioned the constitutionality of those executions, just as we have questioned the constitutionality of this untried murder cocktail as being cruel and unusual and in violation of the 8th Amendment.  Some of us here in Nebraska believe the governor’s dogged fixation on executing someone—which far surpasses merely following a law or dispassionately asserting the value of capital punishment—has firmly verged into perversity. Why has he gone to such bizarre personal lengths to do this? Does Ricketts get to watch this execution? Will it be videotaped for him?

Meanwhile, the Pope has announced a universal denunciation of the death penalty, making the official position of the Catholic Church that the death penalty is never acceptable. This has had no impact on Ricketts—who runs on his Catholic faith, uses it to justify defunding women’s health, and is partnered with the Archdiocese to try to funnel public educational funds into parochial education. Suddenly he is a secular leader who keeps his faith private and is unswayed by doctrine. And where is his church on this? Father Baxter of St. Margaret Mary in Omaha has failed to demonstrate leadership on this issue—depressingly but unsurprisingly refusing to publicly condemn the actions of the obscenely wealthy governor whose family just spent tens of millions of dollars building a cloisters modeled on the church. But Baxter did speak out against death penalty *protesters* (organized by us here at Seeing Red), whom he claimed were “uncivil” in booing another wealthy donor congregant, Hal Daub, when Daub exited the church last week.

Daub, a former Omaha mayor and University of Nebraska Regent running for re-election, says that the death penalty “has nothing to do with what I’m doing in my life.” Au contraire. Turns out that Daub actually gave $5,000 to the cause—in 2016 he made a sizable donation to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, though admittedly it pales in comparison to the $425,000 that came from the Ricketts family. (Side note: did you know that Omaha has among the highest poverty rates for black and hispanic residents? I wonder what $425,000 could do to help that problem.)

One more twist in the saga: German pharmaceutical company Fresenius Kabi has filed suit against Nebraska, claiming that one of the execution drugs in the Ricketts Special could only have originated with their company based on the size of the vial. They say that there is no way the state could have procured this legally, that Nebraska does not seem to be storing the drugs appropriately, that Nebraska has no right to use their product in that way, and that Fresenius will suffer reputational harm if their product is used in an execution (and possible further harm, depending on how European Union laws intersect with this). Ricketts and Frakes in turn deny any wrongdoing, but notably still won’t say who made the drugs or how they got them. A hearing today at 3:00 may result in a temporary protection order, which Frakes complains will effectively cancel the execution *because they can’t ever get these drugs legally again.*

Funny thing about that canned pheasant hunt I mentioned at the beginning: Ricketts still missed his shot.