This week, Nebraskans learned that their elected and appointed officials are willing to go to court so they don’t have to disclose information on the death penalty protocol.
That desire to cling to silence – and the lengths to which the state will go to maintain it – speaks volumes.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday by Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson and Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes doubles down on previous efforts to stonewall these details. A legislative committee voted to subpoena Frakes for an upcoming hearing in pursuit of more information on how it obtained and tested the drugs, and the pair is suing to quash the subpoena.
This can’t be stated loudly – or plainly – enough: Had the state merely been transparent about how it obtained and tested its four-drug cocktail, neither these lawsuits nor the subpoena would exist.
Nebraskans deserve to know how their officials planned to carry out the capital punishment voters reinstated. Their vote to overturn the Legislature’s ban on the death penalty didn’t absolve the state of responsibility to follow the law in carrying out that sentence – one it already botched in its failed, costly attempts to import drugs from India a few years back.
The power of life and death is a tremendous one. As such, it must be as transparent as possible.
Perhaps that’s what makes this lawsuit and the state’s repeated, yet unjustified, claims to the contrary so disappointing. The two prime arguments cited in the 39-page complaint, too, don’t justify keeping the capital punishment process entirely in the dark.
First, legislative committees have previously used the exact same powers enumerated by the law Peterson and Frakes are now challenging to subpoena information related to Corrections. In 2014, the special committee convened to address Nebraska’s early prison release debacle issued a subpoena to then-Gov. Dave Heineman. He testified for seven hours after volunteering to appear even without one.
Furthermore, matters relating to crime and punishment have always gone before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Jockeying to have legislation referred to a more favorable committee is nothing new for senators, but a lawsuit to mandate an assignment is simply stunning.
By no means is the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services a stranger to being sued. But the agency remains flat-out wrong in claiming of an exemption to state public records laws. That has generated several lawsuits, including one in which the Journal Star is among the plaintiffs.
Yet, as the number and height of hurdles between Nebraska and its first execution since 1997 continue to grow, state officials continue to escalate their attempts to keep secret vital details about its new lethal injection protocol.
State officials are clearly committed to killing Nebraska’s 11 death-row inmates. It’s a shame they’re not nearly as committed to transparency in that process.