Doctors voice concern over effectiveness of Nebraska execution drugs

By Jessie Higgins

EVANSVILLE, Ind., Aug. 7 (UPI) -- As the date for Nebraska's first execution in two decades nears, medical professionals are voicing concern over whether the drugs the state intends to use will adequately anesthetize the prisoner.

Nebraska plans to execute Carey Dean Moore on Aug. 14, using a combination of drugs never before used in a lethal injection. The four-drug recipe includes diazepam, which is Valium, and fentanyl, an opiate.


"The literature all shows that Valium is not strong enough to anesthetize a person," said Dr. Alan Kaye, chairman of the anesthesiology department at Louisiana State University and a professor of pharmacology. "If I were putting someone to sleep for surgery, I would never use Valium. It's just not potent enough."

Fentanyl is a opiate painkiller, responsible for many overdose deaths around the country in the opioid epidemic. It's possible that a large dose of fentanyl could prevent the prisoner from feeling pain during an execution, said Dr. Jonathan Groner, a pediatric surgeon in Ohio.

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The other two drugs the state intends to use are cisatracurium besylate, a paralytic that has also never been used in an execution, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.


The Nebraska Department of Corrections has remained tight-lipped about why it intends to use these four drugs. A spokeswoman for the department did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

Those who study lethal injections believe the state chose these medicines because they were the only drugs it was able to acquire.

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Most pharmaceutical companies oppose their drugs being used by states to kill people, and have enacted internal policies to keep states from purchasing them. States, therefore, often struggle to acquire lethal injection drugs.

"Nebraska has not explained why these drugs are necessary," said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "They've not explained why these drugs are more efficacious than other methods. My suspicion is that Nebraska has chosen this protocol because these are the drugs they got their hands on."

If this drug protocol works appropriately, the Valium and fentanyl will put Moore into a state of unconsciousness, Groner said. After that, the cisatracurium besylate will paralyze him so he is unable to breathe. And, finally, the potassium chloride will stop the heart.

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The final two drugs can cause extreme pain if the prisoner is not properly anesthetized. The paralytic could cause Moore to feel like he is drowning, and the potassium chloride creates the sensation of being "chemically burned alive," Dunham said.


Because Nebraska intends to use the paralytic, it will be impossible for onlookers to know if the first two drugs are doing their job, Dunham said.

"This execution may go off according to plan," Dunham said, "and it may not."

Moore, who was convicted of killing two people in 1979, has chosen not to fight his execution in court, meaning it will likely to proceed as scheduled.

Meanwhile, three Catholic bishops called on the state last week to halt the execution after Pope Francis announced opposition to the death penalty.

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