Gov. Dave Heineman
Gov. Dave Heineman (AP file)

Gov. Dave Heineman approved a lethal-injection protocol for Nebraska on Wednesday, ending the death penalty's monthslong limbo in the state and opening the gate to a new round of lawsuits.

There never was any doubt Heineman, a death-penalty supporter, would sign off on the protocol that replaces electrocution, and he did so without publicizing his approval.

Last year, he supported Nebraska lawmakers when they directed the state Department of Correctional Services to craft a lethal-injection protocol to replace electrocution.

The direction from lawmakers followed a 2008 ruling from the state Supreme Court that said the electric chair amounted to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Nebraska had been the only state with electrocution as its sole means of execution, and since the ruling, has technically been without a means of executing prisoners.

Nebraska is now in line with more than 30 other states that use a similar three-drug cocktail -- an anesthetic, a muscle paralyzer and a substance to stop the heart.

While the new protocol technically goes into effect Monday, it will be summer before the Department of Correctional Services is actually ready to use it. And experts say they don't expect an execution to take place for several years because of legal challenges.

Corrections Director Bob Houston said Wednesday that "hundreds of modifications" need the be made to corrections facilities and equipment before lethal injection can be used, but that the department is on track to be able to carry out the protocol by summer.

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Among the changes is enlarging the room where executions take place to accommodate the new procedure.

Also, staff members need to be trained on the protocol.

Among the requirements spelled out in the five-page protocol is that two members of the lethal-injection team be trained to maintain an open IV line and have been trained as emergency medical technicians. After execution dates are set, members of the execution team will be required to train weekly.

Attorneys who oppose the death penalty have said they expect lawsuits will be filed attacking various components of the protocol, including training requirements they say are vague. There also could be legal challenges arguing the protocol violates a state law barring the use of poison to harm someone.

Attorney Jerry Soucie, whose court challenge led to the demise of the electric chair, said Monday that lawsuits may challenge the Legislature's decision to delegate to the corrections' department the responsibility of crafting the protocol, rather than challenging the protocol itself.

Death penalty opponents held slim hopes this year that lawsuits wouldn't be needed because the Legislature might nix the death penalty altogether. But a repeal bill before lawmakers last month didn't even make it to a vote after its sponsors sensed they didn't have enough support.

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