After nearly 20 years with no lethal injections, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services is hoping to give sweeping authority to its director in an effort to speed up executions.
Last year, Director Scott Frakes authorized a $50,000 payment to a man in India in exchange for illegal execution drugs. As BuzzFeed News reported, the drugs never made it out of India — and the would-be supplier refused to give the state a refund.
But under the department's proposed procedures, Frakes would be allowed to keep records about its execution drug purchases confidential.
“Given the recent history of scandals within the Department of Corrections, this Department should be making extra efforts to be transparent and accountable to the people of Nebraska," Danielle Conrad, the head of the ACLU of Nebraska said in a statement. Conrad said the ACLU would fight "any effort to cloak Nebraska’s broken death penalty in secrecy."
In the new protocol, the department of corrections cites a vague statute as its authority to keep records about the supplier secret. That statute, which addresses the procedure for creating protocol, says the director can "perform or authorize any other details deemed necessary and appropriate by the director." The state is claiming that the secrecy is "necessary and appropriate."
Using documents obtained through public records requests, BuzzFeed News was able to determine last year the timing of Nebraska’s attempt to secure the illegal drugs, information about the failed attempt itself, as well as extensive information about the source of the drugs. The supplier, in India, claimed business and manufacturing headquarters that were not places where he would have been able to manufacture drugs.
Withholding records about the supplier would make such discoveries difficult, if not impossible, going forward.
The secrecy isn't the only change the department hopes to make. Also proposed is giving the director the authority to change the drugs and doses used on inmates; the inmates would be informed of the changes 60 days before an execution date was requested.
The changes will be discussed at a Dec. 30 hearing, in which the public will be allowed to speak.
The proposed changes come just weeks after Nebraska voters elected to bring back the death penalty in the state. Last year, the legislature voted to repeal the state's death penalty over the veto of its Gov. Pete Ricketts. Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs and founded TD Ameritrade, bankrolled the effort to get the death penalty on the ballot. His brother, Todd, is reportedly expected to be nominated to a senior role in the Trump administration Commerce Department.
“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 in a statement. "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.”
The federal government has blocked shipments of execution drugs because sodium thiopental is an "unapproved new drug" and is illegal to import. The FDA is under a court order to block the drug.