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Nebraska court orders disclosure of execution drug records

(KWTX)
Published: May. 15, 2020 at 10:09 AM CDT
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Nebraska prison officials cannot withhold public records that reveal where they purchased their supply of lethal injection drugs, the state’s highest court ruled Friday.

In ordering the documents to be disclosed for public scrutiny, the Nebraska Supreme Court sided with two newspapers and a prisoner advocacy group that had sued the Department of Correctional Services after it refused to release records related to its supply of execution drugs in 2017.

The department previously had regularly disclosed such records without objection to anyone who requested them. Department officials at the time were under increasing pressure to obtain lethal injection drugs as death-penalty critics questioned whether Nebraska would ever carry out another execution.

Media outlets including The Associated Press, The Omaha World-Herald and The Lincoln Journal Star filed formal requests in 2017 for records including purchase orders for the lethal injection drugs that would have identified the supplier. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska filed a similar request. The Omaha World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal Star and the ACLU of Nebraska sued after the request was denied, arguing that the department had violated Nebraska’s open-records laws.

Prison officials said the state’s supplier should be considered a member of the official “execution team,” whose identities are confidential under Nebraska law.

A district court judge ordered the department to release the records in 2018, and the case has been under appeal ever since. That same year, Nebraska executed its first inmate since 1997, using the drugs prison officials had obtained from the unknown supplier.

Prison officials and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts faced criticism in 2015 for sending $54,400 in state money to a broker in India who promised to deliver lethal injection drugs. The broker later said his shipments were being blocked and refused to return the money.

“Because (the department’s) contentions contradict the text of Nebraska’s public records statutes and are adverse to this court’s public records precedent, we find that (the) appeal is without merit,” the court said in its ruling.

Nebraska lawmakers have rejected “shield laws” that would have given prison officials the authority to withhold those records, as other states have done.

Nebraska lawmakers narrowly abolished capital punishment in 2015, largely due to a coalition of conservative legislators who viewed it as a waste of money given how long it had been since the state had an execution. The next year, voters approved reinstating capital punishment in a ballot measure that was partially financed by Ricketts.

The state currently has no executions scheduled.

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