Convicted murderer Jose Sandoval is set to become the first Nebraska prisoner executed in 20 years and the first American to be put to death using a new four-drug lethal injection procedure.
As such, information about the state’s capital punishment protocols and the sources of the execution drugs is of significant interest to Nebraskans, who overwhelmingly voted last November to reinstate the death penalty.
Yet the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has refused to provide information sought by the Journal Star and other organizations. By incorrectly insisting government business can be hidden from the public – maintaining that defense even as the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Friday – the state agency is falling short of its obligation of transparency and accountability.
Reporting on the origins of lethal injection drugs is a critical yardstick to see how far the state has come since its previous efforts to import such substances went embarrassingly wrong.
For those who have forgotten, Nebraska was one a few states that tried to import sodium thiopental, a component in its previous lethal injection protocol, from a broker in India who claimed to operate a legitimate pharmaceutical company. The drugs were barred from entering the country – but the state was already out the nearly $55,000 it had sent in payment.
The sources from which the state purchased those substances are critical, too.
It’s not publicly known whether they came from a known drug manufacturer – several of whom have objected to their products being used in execution – or a compounding pharmacy. In April, a German company unsuccessfully demanded the return of potassium chloride reporters discovered in the state’s lethal injection supply.
To date, all that’s been released is the order in which the drugs will be administered and Corrections’ claims that they were obtained in the United States and “have been tested according to state law.”
Corrections’ word alone is not enough. The agency must demonstrate proof – and releasing the information sought by journalists and other interested parties would help satisfy not only the curiosity of Nebraskans but state code as well.
Past actions have raised legitimate concerns about Nebraska’s capital punishment process that must be answered rather than obscured behind a state law that keeps the state’s execution team confidential and shields any information that could help divulge their identities. But nobody is seeking to discover the information Corrections is erroneously claiming as its public records exemption.
Transparency is and will always be the best policy for a government that is accountable to its constituents.
Nebraska has lost money and reputation following a rash of missteps in this arena. Accordingly, it’s on Corrections to comply with the open records request and release all pertinent information on Sandoval’s upcoming execution.