LINCOLN, Neb. — Prison officials in Nebraska used fentanyl, the powerful opioid at the center of the nation’s overdose epidemic, to help execute a convicted murderer on Tuesday. The lethal injection at the Nebraska State Penitentiary was the first time fentanyl had been used to carry out the death penalty in the United States.
The execution, Nebraska’s first since 1997, represented a stunning political turnabout in a state where lawmakers voted only three years ago to ban capital punishment.
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. But two pharmaceutical companies tried to block the execution in federal court, claiming their reputations would suffer if the killing proceeded.
The companies could not prove that their products would be used, however, because prison officials refused to identify the suppliers of the drugs to be administered to Mr. Moore. So the execution was allowed to continue.
Mr. Moore’s death, using a previously untested four-drug cocktail, could open a new method 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 ethical concerns amid a national opioid crisis that has led to an onslaught of fatal overdoses.
Scott R. Frakes, the director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, said the first of the four drugs was administered at 10:24 a.m. local time, and Mr. Moore was declared dead at 10:47 a.m.
Four Nebraska journalists who witnessed the execution said it appeared to go as planned. Mr. Moore mouthed the words “I love you” to the witnesses he selected, the journalists said, and at various points in the execution process he turned his head. Mr. Moore breathed heavily at one point and coughed, the reporters said. His face turned red, then purple.
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.
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.
“We really don’t know how fentanyl is going to play out in an execution, as opposed to an opioid overdose,” Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University who has studied capital punishment, said in an interview on Monday. “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.”
Nebraska has a particularly 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’s veto. But Mr. 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.
[Read more about Gov. Ricketts’s push to restore the death penalty here.]
Mr. Moore, who killed Reuel Van Ness Jr. and Maynard Helgeland in 1979, was among the longest-serving death-row inmates in the country. Mr. 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.
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. Mr. Ricketts is Catholic, but he said the pope’s decision would not change his stance on Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”
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 Mr. Moore expires at the end of this month, and another expires in October.
Mr. 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,” Mr. Frakes said in the court filing seeking to carry out Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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. Mr. Moore encouraged lawyers to 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.”