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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Nebraska proposes changes to execution protocol that could keep lethal injection drugs secret

Nebraska's death chamber
Nebraska's death chamber
LINCOLN — Nebraska prison officials have proposed reviving the state’s lethal injection procedure by giving the corrections director sweeping flexibility to carry out executions, including the authority to select the types of drugs and shield their sources from the public.

The Department of Correctional Services on Monday announced a proposed overhaul of the lethal injection protocol that Nebraska has found unworkable since it was adopted in 2009. The proposal would allow the kinds of secrecy provisions that have helped states such as Missouri, Texas and Georgia execute inmates in an era when obtaining the necessary drugs openly has become extremely difficult.

The proposal, which will require a Dec. 30 public hearing before it could be implemented, comes less than three weeks after 61 percent of Nebraska voters cast ballots to reinstate capital punishment in the state. The vote reversed the 2015 death penalty repeal enacted by state lawmakers.

“Nebraskans were decisive in their choice to maintain the death penalty, and it is now our duty as elected officials to carry it out,” Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday in a statement.

Several lawyers predicted that any adopted changes will trigger new court challenges by some of the 10 inmates on Nebraska’s death row. Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, promised to fight attempts to limit transparency.

“Both death penalty supporters and opponents should be able to agree that the most extreme use of state power should absolutely not occur in the shadows,” Conrad said.

Nebraska’s existing procedure requires authorities to use three drugs in the following order: sodium thiopental, which makes the inmate unconscious; pancuronium bromide, which causes paralysis; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Nebraska officials settled on those drugs, in part, because they were identical to the lethal injection drugs used by the federal government.

But Nebraska hasn’t been able to use the three-drug process, mostly because of legal problems related to how it has obtained sodium thiopental. The state last executed an inmate in 1997 when the method was electrocution.

Nebraska’s most recent attempt to obtain sodium thiopental through a broker in India was stymied when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration blocked the drug’s importation.

“These proposed changes in protocol balance appropriate inmate notification with the flexibility to utilize various constitutionally approved drugs, so political maneuvers at the federal level can’t circumvent the will of the people,” Ricketts said Monday in a clear reference to the FDA’s action.

Federal officials have said that they were required to block delivery of foreign sodium thiopental to comply with federal court rulings.

The proposal issued Monday would make numerous changes and additions to the 13-page lethal injection procedure contained within the Nebraska Administrative Code. Among the key changes:

➮ Prison officials would no longer be bound to specific types or numbers of lethal substances. It would be up to the corrections director to decide what drugs to use and in what doses. The director also could opt for a single drug, as long as it rendered the inmate unconscious and resulted in death “without the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.”

➮ The corrections director would be required to notify the condemned inmate of the types and quantity of substances the state intended to use at least 60 days before the attorney general sought a death warrant from the Nebraska Supreme Court.

➮ Corrections officials may obtain drugs through “any appropriate source,” including from a compounding pharmacy.

➮ The corrections director “may” maintain confidentiality of any records or information that identifies a person, company or entity supplying the execution drugs.

➮ The state must employ a chemical analysis of the drugs at least 60 days before requesting a death warrant.

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Source: Omaha World-Herald, Joe Duggan, November 29, 2016

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