Records show state has spent more than $33,000 preparing for lethal injection

Records show state has spent more than $33,000 preparing for lethal injection

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The state of Nebraska's electric chair has been put into storage.

Preparations for Nebraska's new method of execution, lethal injection, are nearing completion. Witness lists are being updated. The five-page protocol is in place.

And the execution chamber is being remodeled and expanded.

While Omaha Sen. Brenda Council hasn't been able to persuade the Legislature to authorize a study of the costs of the death penalty to the state, she now has a few numbers, courtesy of a public records request by ACLU Nebraska.

Records show the state Department of Correctional Services had spent more than $33,000 through the end of January to prepare for an execution using lethal injection.

When the Legislature debated the bill (LB36) to make lethal injection the method used to carry out the death penalty, a fiscal note attached to it said the attorney general estimated "no fiscal impact," and the corrections department noted there would be "minor costs" for medical equipment and drugs.

Amy Miller, legal director for ACLU Nebraska, said common sense dictated there would be more than just minor costs to move to a new method of execution, so ACLU Nebraska asked for the information.

It turned out, she said, that just the cost to the corrections department was almost as much as the study requested by Council.

"We feel during the legislative process, there was not transparency for senators," Miller said.

And, she said, the list of costs illuminates other aspects of the lethal injection protocol process. Why, she asked, did Nebraska choose the three-drug protocol when the process seems to be on the cusp of change?

Washington and Ohio have changed to a one-drug protocol. Some argue using one drug is more humane.

The $33,000-plus cost to the corrections department so far includes remodeling the execution chamber at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, two trips by execution team members to visit prisons in Texas and Indiana and emergency medical technician training.

Corrections Director Bob Houston said seven staff members who would be directly involved with executions flew to Huntsville, Texas, on a state plane to spend a couple of days there. The flight cost $6,583.

Houston said if the staff members had used a commercial flight, they would have had to stay longer and rent a vehicle, which would have cost the same as the department spent on the state plane.

While in Texas, the Nebraska staff visited with Huntsville corrections personnel, saw the physical layout of the execution facilities and went step-by-step through the process, he said.

Texas executed 24 inmates in 2009. That's nearly half of the 52 executions reported nationwide.

Nebraska will use a protocol similar to that of Texas -- a combination of three drugs -- sodium thiopental, which sedates the person; pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant that collapses the diaphragm and lungs; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

Nebraska's protocol calls for consciousness checks of the inmate one minute after the injection of three grams of sodium thiopental. The warden would brush the eyelashes to check for any involuntary muscle response and check pupil reaction to light. If the inmate is not unconscious, the drug will be administered again and rechecked.

The remaining two drugs will be given when the inmate is unconscious. The drug protocol is also similar to those used in Kentucky and Arkansas. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Arkansas protocol in February.

In Texas, the cost of the three drugs Nebraska will use is $86.08 per execution.

There have been reports in other states of people administering the drugs not being able to find a proper vein, or having to ask the inmate for help to do so.

Nebraska's protocol calls for the IV team leader to determine appropriate injection locations at least 48 hours prior to the execution. The IV team leader and a member will be trained as emergency medical technicians and in phlebotomy, the process of puncturing a vein with a needle.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services is still completing details of the execution chamber, working on witness lists and doing training and practice runs.

Houston said the people chosen for the execution teams are seasoned and proven professionals with excellent character and integrity.

"The department stands ready to carry out its responsibility," he said.

It has gotten ready to do so with extreme professionalism and dignity for everyone involved, Houston said.

No execution date has been set.

Carey Dean Moore, convicted in 1979 in the deaths of Omaha cab drivers Maynard Helgeland and Reuel Van Ness, had an execution date set two years ago, but was granted a temporary stay.

The last Nebraska execution was that of Robert Williams, who died in the electric chair in December 1997 for the murders of Catherine Brook, Patricia McGarry and Virginia Rowe.

Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

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Nebraska Department of Correctional Services invoices show these costs as of the end of January in preparing to carry out the death penalty us…

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