State officials say Nebraska obtained lethal injection drugs legally

State officials say Nebraska obtained lethal injection drugs legally
The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services' execution room in Lincoln, as seen from the viewing room. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — Nebraska officials say they followed the law last year when they obtained a new supply of lethal injection drugs, calling allegations to the contrary “inflammatory language.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska sent a letter Monday to officials with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration calling for an investigation into how Nebraska obtained four drugs that it intends to use for executions. The letter leveled several allegations, including that prison officials misled federal officials by indicating the drugs would be used for medical treatment.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, who helped fund the 2016 ballot initiative that reinstated the death penalty, said Monday he considered the ACLU’s letter misleading.

“The ACLU is fabricating charges in a desperate attempt to foil the will of the people of Nebraska,” Ricketts said.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services purchased all of the drugs legally late last year, Dawn-Renee Smith, the department’s spokeswoman, said Monday in an email. She has previously said the department paid $10,500 for the drugs.

She also said the drugs were obtained in the United States, in response to an allegation by the ACLU that it appears one of the drugs was imported in violation of corrections’ current DEA permits.

“The ACLU’s letter … contains inflammatory language clearly intended to discredit the department,” she said, declining a request to address the ACLU letter in more detail.

A DEA spokesman in Washington did not immediately respond to questions about whether the agency will investigate the matter.

The ACLU letter said if an investigation were to find violations, the state’s DEA licenses should be revoked and the drugs seized.

Given the state’s problematic past with obtaining lethal injection drugs, questions about the latest batch are legitimate, said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska. In 2015, corrections officials paid $54,400 to a supplier in India for drugs that a former U.S. attorney in Nebraska said were illegal to import.

“When the state attempts to carry the most severe and grave function a state carries out, it’s imperative they do so within the bounds of the law,” she said.

The ACLU letter also suggests that corrections officials may have played a shell game with the DEA by using permits issued for the State Penitentiary’s clinic and skilled nursing facility for the purpose of treating patients.

Amy Miller, the ACLU lawyer who wrote the letter, said a DEA license holder can’t buy controlled substances for any purpose it wants without express permission from the federal agency. To make her point, Miller compared the situation to a license many adults hold.

“I have a license to drive a car. That doesn’t give me permission to drive a motorcycle or get behind the wheel of a semi,” she said.