Prison officials in Nebraska used the powerful opioid fentanyl to help execute a convicted murderer on Tuesday, the first such use of the drug in the United States and the first execution in the state since voters overturned a death penalty ban in 2016.
The use of fentanyl, an opioid at the heart of the nation’s overdose crisis, as part of a previously untested four-drug cocktail drew concern from death penalty experts who questioned how the execution unfolded. And here in Nebraska, a state that last killed a prisoner in 1997, the lethal injection represented a stark political turnabout from when legislators outlawed capital punishment three years ago.
The condemned man, Carey Dean Moore, 60, had been convicted of killing two Omaha taxi drivers decades ago and did not seek a reprieve in his final months. He was pronounced dead at 10:47 a.m. at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, officials said, 23 minutes after the first drug was administered. Moore breathed heavily at one point and coughed, said four Nebraska journalists whom the state selected to watch the execution. Moore’s face turned red, then purple.
The four-drug cocktail contained diazepam, a tranquilizer; fentanyl citrate, a powerful synthetic opioid that can block breathing and knock out consciousness; cisatracurium besylate, a muscle relaxant; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
This method could open a new avenue for states that have increasingly struggled to find execution drugs as suppliers have clamped down on how their products are used. But the unprecedented use of fentanyl in an execution chamber raised new questions, with death penalty observers warning that any untested method brought risks.
“Simply because people are dying as a result of fentanyl doesn’t mean they’re dying in a way that would be considered acceptable as a form of execution,” Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University who has studied capital punishment, said in an interview before Moore’s death.
Robert Dunham, the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said the journalists’ accounts of the Nebraska execution left open the possibility that something went wrong.
“I can’t tell from the description whether it’s an indication of an execution gone bad or there are just question marks,” said Dunham, who added that the execution took longer than the 15 or so minutes that he had anticipated. He said the descriptions of Moore coughing and his face reddening were concerning.
Scott Frakes, the state corrections director, who in the months before the execution refused to disclose the source of the drugs, spoke to reporters for roughly a minute after Moore died and did not answer questions.
“I am required to carry out the order of the court,” Frakes said. “This agency has done so with professionalism, respect for the process and dignity for all involved.”
Nebraska has a complicated history with capital punishment. Before Tuesday, the state had not carried out an execution since 1997 and had never killed someone by lethal injection. (The state most recently had used an electric chair.)
A bipartisan mix of Nebraska legislators voted in 2015 to outlaw capital punishment, citing a mix of moral and financial reasons, and then overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto. But Ricketts, a Republican, and his wealthy family bankrolled a ballot referendum that gave voters a chance to decide the issue. Nebraskans voted overwhelmingly in 2016 to reinstate the death penalty.
In recent weeks, the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, citing a new teaching by Pope Francis that capital punishment is wrong in all cases, urged church members to contact state officials and try to block the execution. Ricketts is Catholic, but he said the pope’s decision would not change his stance on Moore’s execution.
“While I respect the pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska,” Ricketts said in a statement earlier this month. “It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety. The state continues to carry out the sentences ordered by the court.”
Ricketts’ spokesman did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The Nebraska journalists who witnessed Moore’s execution said it appeared to go as planned, though some parts of the process were conducted out of their view. Moore mouthed the words “I love you” to the witnesses he selected, the journalists said, and turned his head at various points in the execution process.
Moore, who robbed and killed Reuel Van Ness Jr. and Maynard Helgeland in a five-day crime spree in 1979, was among the longest-serving death row inmates in the country. Moore had seen previous execution dates come and go and had expressed frustration with the repeated delays. People close to him had said he was ready to die.
Still, his execution remained in question until his final hours. Two pharmaceutical companies tried to block the execution in federal court, claiming their reputations would suffer if the killing proceeded. And prison officials said Tuesday morning that they were consulting with the state attorney general to make sure no court issued a stay.
Outside the prison, a steady rain fell all morning as a small group of death penalty protesters gathered on the lawn. Several police officers and state troopers were posted in the area, but there were no obvious problems. The prison yard, alongside a major highway, appeared empty.
Eleven more men remain on Nebraska’s death row, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in some pending cases. Still, it is unclear when and if the state will kill another inmate. The state’s supply of one of the drugs used in the cocktail to kill Moore expires at the end of this month, and another expires in October.
Frakes, the Nebraska corrections director, said in a court filing this month that execution drugs “are difficult, if nearly impossible, to obtain,” and that he has no replacement sources.
“A temporary restraining order or injunction,” Frakes said in the court filing seeking to carry out Moore’s execution, “would more than likely have the effect of changing Nebraska’s final death sentence into a de facto sentence of life in prison for Carey Dean Moore.”
Moore said little on Tuesday before the execution, according to the four reporters the state selected to witness the process. But he did write a page-long, handwritten letter acknowledging guilt and reiterating that he did not wish to fight the execution in court.
Moore wrote that he hoped lawyers would help his brother, who is on parole, and Nebraska death row inmates who claim they are innocent.
He signed the letter “Carey Dean Moore, ex-Death Row Inmate.”