Nebraska carries out first U.S. execution using fentanyl

Nebraska carries out first U.S. execution using fentanyl
Carey Dean Moore was executed Tuesday for the 1979 murders of two Omaha cab drivers. (Nebraska Department of Correctional Services)

Authorities in Nebraska on Tuesday morning used the powerful opioid fentanyl to carry out a death sentence, an unprecedented move that came as the state, which just three years ago briefly abolished capital punishment, completed a remarkable reversal and resumed executions for the first time in nearly a generation.

Nebraska experienced a series of firsts Tuesday morning: the state's first execution in 21 years, its first lethal injection and the country's first death sentence carried out with fentanyl, which has helped drive the opioid epidemic. The execution was even more unusual considering the state's very recent history, which saw its legislature abolish the death penalty in 2015 before voters reversed that decision the following year.


Executed was Carey Dean Moore, a 60-year-old inmate who has been on death row for more than half his life. Moore was sentenced to death for killing two Omaha cab drivers in 1979. He said before the execution that he did not intend to stop it or want anyone else to intervene.

Nebraska had scheduled Moore's execution to begin at 10 a.m. local time at the state penitentiary in Lincoln, the capital. The first of the four drugs used by Nebraska was injected into Moore at 10:24 a.m and the coroner announced his time of death at 10:47 a.m., corrections officials said.

Moore's case wound its way through the court system for nearly four decades, ever since the August 1979 slayings of Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland, both taxi drivers and Korean War veterans. Relatives of the men have said they were ready for a conclusion in the case.

"Thirty-eight years has been long enough," Richelle Van Ness-Doran, Van Ness's daughter, recently told the Omaha World-Herald. "It's just prolonging this … it's like a slap in our face."

Moore faced execution warrants before Tuesday. He also appeared, albeit briefly, to be heading toward a sentence of life in prison when the Nebraska legislature banned the death penalty in 2015.

That move was a stunning shift for a heavily Republican state. Lawmakers voted to override a veto from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who had strongly criticized the decision. A group with considerable financial backing from Ricketts and his family then pushed to have the issue added to the statewide ballot in 2016, where 60% of voters chose to restore capital punishment.

Whether Moore would be executed on Tuesday as scheduled was thrown into question last week when the drug company Fresenius Kabi filed a federal lawsuit accusing Nebraska of obtaining lethal injection drugs "through improper or illegal means." The company said it believed two of its products were going to be used to execute Moore, and it asked the a judge to block the state from using the drugs and order them returned.

One of the drugs cited in the lawsuit, potassium chloride, was intended to stop Moore's heart. Another drug, cisatracurium besylate, would paralyze his muscles. Nebraska's execution plans also call for the state to use diazepam, a sedative better known as Valium, and fentanyl to render Moore unconscious.


Nebraska officials argued they obtained their drugs legally and legitimately. The officials also said they had no backup option to obtain more, adding that they were facing a ticking clock because the state's supply of potassium chloride expires at the end of August.

A federal district judge ruled against Fresenius Kabi last week. After a circuit court panel on Monday rejected the company's appeal, the firm said it would not seek further appeals in the case.

In recent years, states seeking to carry out death sentences have hit roadblocks in their attempts to obtain drugs, a situation fueled by drug companies' objections to their products being used in capital punishment. In response, some states have turned to other methods of execution, including nitrogen gas or the firing squad. Others still have looked instead to untested drug combinations.

Nebraska is one such state, announcing plans to use fentanyl in its execution. Last month, Nevada was hours away from being the first state to use fentanyl in an execution when a lawsuit filed by another drug company prompted a judge to halt the lethal injection.

The choice of fentanyl for an execution points to a state's desperation to find drugs, experts said.

"There's no particular reason why one would use fentanyl," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington nonprofit group. "No one has used it before, and we've had hundreds and hundreds of executions by injection. That suggests that the state is using fentanyl because it can get its hands on it."

State officials in Nebraska have not elaborated on how they chose fentanyl, but they suggested their options in purchasing execution drugs were extremely limited.

"Lethal substances used in a lethal injection execution are difficult, if nearly impossible, to obtain," Scott Frakes, director of Nebraska's Department of Correctional Services, wrote in an affidavit filed in federal court after the drug company sued his state. "This problem is not limited solely to Nebraska, but exists in other death penalty states."

Berman writes for the Washington Post.