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Nebraska executes Carey Dean Moore for murders of Omaha cab drivers Maynard Helgeland, Reuel Van Ness Jr.
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Nebraska executes Carey Dean Moore for murders of Omaha cab drivers Maynard Helgeland, Reuel Van Ness Jr.

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The earth shifted a bit in Nebraska on Tuesday morning when it became not just a state with a death penalty, but one that has resumed capital punishment after a 21-year de facto moratorium. 

Condemned prisoner Carey Dean Moore, who had seven previous execution dates set and then set aside in his 38 years on death row, was pronounced dead at 10:47 a.m. by Lancaster County Coroner Pat Condon. 

Moore, 60, was handed the death sentence in 1980 for the 1979 murders of Omaha cab drivers Maynard Helgeland and Reuel Van Ness Jr. 

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While several family members of the victims were at the Nebraska State Penitentiary Tuesday morning, none of them witnessed the execution, carried out by the administration of four lethal injection drugs — diazepam, fentanyl, cisatracurium and potassium chloride. The procedure was unique in that the drugs had never been used in that combination. 

The penitentiary inmates were locked in their cells during at least the few hours of the execution for safety reasons, said spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith. 

Outside, about 20 people gathered under gray, rainy skies in a portion of the parking lot of the prison cordoned off for those opposed to the execution, praying, holding signs and standing quietly. Only a few came to support what was happening inside the prison. 

Inside prison walls, media witnesses to the death first saw Moore around 9:15 a.m. when he was read the death warrant by penitentiary Warden Michele Capps.

Moore, who was shackled at the waist, wrists and ankles, gave an oral statement, in addition to his written one, said witness Grant Schulte of the Associated Press.

Moore was "composed. He certainly looked maybe slightly shaken," said Joe Duggan of the Omaha World-Herald, another media witness. "The gravity of what was happening to him was clear on his face and his expression. ... His voice was clear when he spoke." 

Asked if he had a final statement, he said, "Just the statement that I hand-delivered to you already about my brother Donny and the innocent men on Nebraska's death row. That's all that I have to say."

In his written statement he said there are four men on death row who claim to be innocent. "I am guilty, they are not," he said. 

He apologized to his brother, Donald, who he took with him in 1979 to rob and then kill his first victim, Van Ness. 

"As his older brother whom he looked up to, I should had lead him in the right way to go, instead of bringing him down, way down, and because of that I am terribly sorry. (Please forgive me, Don, somehow)."

He signed the letter as "ex-death row inmate."

Witnesses recount scene

Once on the execution table, covered with a white sheet and his left arm connected to the intravenous tubing, Moore turned his head to the left and mouthed a message to his witnesses, including the words, "I love you," several times, Schulte said. 

He closed his eyes then, and the first drugs began moving through the tube and into his body. About a minute later he started breathing heavily. After that, Deputy Warden Robert Madsen did checks to ensure Moore was unconscious. 

He appeared to cough, his breathing accelerated, then his chest and his body stilled. "His face very gradually initially turned slightly red and then turned purple," Schulte said. 

The witnesses said they did not see a change in his facial expression. 

His eyes opened slightly and the curtain to the witness room closed. The curtain was closed for 14 minutes, then reopened after he was pronounced dead. 

Smith, the prisons spokeswoman, said when the curtain closed the execution team waited five minutes, then called the coroner in to pronounce death at 10:47 a.m. It is not known what was happening between pronouncement of death and the curtain opening again to the media witnesses. 

Brent Martin of Nebraska Radio Network said the execution took "much longer" than the 13 he witnessed as a reporter in Missouri, where they used a three-drug protocol of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. He also never noticed the change in facial color of an inmate in the other executions he observed, he said. 

Chip Matthews, media witness from News Channel Nebraska, said there didn't appear to be any complications during the execution, although he couldn't say what happened when the curtain was down. The execution chamber was soundproof. 

"I would like to see that the curtains stay up the whole time. I understand that they ... don't want people to know who's part of the execution team, however, if it's supposed to be transparent then I would like to see it be totally transparent," Matthews said. "We don't know what they did behind the curtain when it was down."

The witnesses said they hadn't fully processed the impact of viewing Moore's death. They said they looked at the task as a solemn responsibility of their jobs as journalists. Independent, objective witnesses are important, Schulte said. 

"My biggest takeaway from today is that I just hope that this never happens to an innocent person," Matthews said. 

'Enactment of justice'

The execution follows a 2016 referendum — politically and financially backed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts — in which Nebraska voters reinstated the death penalty after state lawmakers had abolished it the previous year.

Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes told reporters his position requires him to carry out the court's order in administering capital punishment.

"This agency has done so with professionalism, respect for the process and with dignity for all involved," he said, reading from a statement, after which he left and did not answer questions from the press. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a statement saying the Department of Corrections carried out the sentence the court ordered in accordance with the will of Nebraskans.

"The death penalty remains a critical tool to protect law enforcement, corrections officers and public safety,” he said. 

Attorney General Doug Peterson said the somber event provided "a measure of closure for what has been a lengthy enactment of justice."

Most recent 'dark chapter'

The day stood as the most recent "dark chapter" in Nebraska's troubled history with the death penalty, the ACLU of Nebraska said in a statement. 

"Nebraskans of good will have different beliefs about the death penalty, but it is troubling and curious why Governor Ricketts made the death penalty his signature issue," said Danielle Conrad, executive director. 

Tuesday's execution was an historic day that followed decades of debate over the death penalty in Nebraska and nationwide, and a months-long flurry of legal and political maneuvering by people on both sides. 

Martin said when he came to Nebraska from Missouri, he perceived executions to be more academic than functional. This day came as a surprise. 

"I just really thought we'd never get to this point," he said. "I did not think this day would take place."

Fran Kaye, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, did her anti-death penalty witnessing on campus Tuesday morning with several others. Moore had asked his supporters not to come to the prison, she said. 

On Tuesday evening she attended a vigil for him at the Capitol. She pointed to the words carved into the north face of the building: Wisdom, Justice, Power, Mercy. 

"Wisdom's gone. Justice only means vengeance. Power only means violence. And mercy is definitely chiseled completely off," she said. "I think Nebraska has taken a huge step in places we don't want to go."

More updates:

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


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