Fentanyl Used in Execution Cocktail for the First Time

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on August 15, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Nebraska recently held its first execution in 21 years, its first by lethal injection, and a first in history to use fentanyl. In an interesting turn of events, this drug, which has been at the center of America's opioid epidemic, is now being used to execute prisoners in the very same prison which houses recovered opioid addicts.

Surprising Difficulty Inflicting Capital Punishment

Over the past 20 years, many states administering capital punishment have migrated away from electrocution towards lethal injection. In a step-by-step administration, prisoners are given a series of four drugs to relax (diazepam), lose consciousness (fentanyl), paralyze (cisatracurium), and then stop the heart (potassium chloride). However, prisons are finding it increasingly more difficult to obtain cisatracurium and potassium chloride.

To be effective, the lethal injection of potassium chloride must come from a 30 ml vial, which is only manufactured by the German company, Fresenius Kabi. This company opposes the use of its product for lethal injection, and has refused to sell both cisatracurium and potassium chloride to correctional facilities, and even filed a federal lawsuit to stop the use of its drug in executing the Nebraska inmate, Carey Dean Moore. Somehow Nebraska Department of Correctional Services was able to obtain 25 vials, which are set to expire at the end of August.

The Death of the Death Penalty

Since Moore was sentenced in 1979, popular views on the death penalty have declined. In 1998, over 300 death sentences were handed down. In 2017, that number dropped to 39. Electrocution was seen to be cruel and unusual punishment, but now drug manufacturers do not want to be associated with lethal injection for the same reason.

They have put up road blocks to stop correctional facilities from obtaining their drugs for this purpose. In response, some states have turned towards other methods of execution, including nitrogen (laughing) gas and the firing squad. Still others have turned, in desperation, to fentanyl, which, obviously, is extremely easy to obtain in America. However, according to Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, "there's really no particular reason why one would use fentanyl," and circumstances suggest that Nebraska faced extremely limited purchasing options for execution purposes.

Up Next, Nevada

Drug companies were able to successfully stay the Nevada execution of Scott Dozier. There, multiple drug companies filed a state lawsuit to stop prison companies from using its drugs in executions. The Nevada Supreme Court is expected to weigh in soon on this suit, and Dozier remains on death row.

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