LINCOLN, Nebraska — Nebraska's attorney general said the state's corrections department has been too busy dealing with myriad problems to focus on resolving drug shortages that have halted executions in the state, which hasn't carried out the death penalty in 17 years.
Attorney General Jon Bruning told The Associated Press he's confident Nebraska will resume executions, but he thinks it will take a while before officials can work out a new approach using different drugs or a new supplier.
"I have a high degree of confidence that we'll have a workable death penalty in the future," said Bruning, who is leaving office in January. "Whether that's a year or two years from now, I can't say. But in the near future, there's no reason that Nebraska shouldn't have a functional death penalty."
Nebraska lost its only approved method to carry out executions when its supply of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic required under the department's rules, expired in December. The drug is no longer produced in the United States, and European Union countries are prohibited from selling the drug for use in capital punishment.
Nebraska hasn't executed anyone since 1997, when triple killer Robert E. Williams was electrocuted in 1977.
Of the 33 Nebraska inmates sentenced to death since 1973, three have been executed and 11 are on death row. One former inmate, Jeremy Sheets, was released in 2001 after his conviction was thrown out and prosecutors declined to retry him. The others have had their sentences overturned by court rulings, or died of suicide or natural causes.
Carrie Dean Moore came within six days of being executed in 2007 for murdering two Omaha cab drivers in 1979, but the state's high court issued a stay so it could decide whether the electric chair was constitutional. The following year, the court ruled the chair amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Gov. Dave Heineman approved a lethal-injection protocol in 2009 calling for three drugs: the anesthetic, a muscle paralyzer and a substance to stop the heart.
Bruning and a former state attorney who handled death-penalty cases said the Department of Correctional Services can change the protocol after a series of public hearings and comment periods.
But the department has been scrambling recently to respond to a litany of problems: the sentencing fiasco in which hundreds of inmates were released early; the release of Nikko Jenkins, who then killed four people in Omaha; and a state prison van program in which an inmate driver, Jeremy Dobbe, killed a woman in Lincoln.
A legislative committee has subpoenaed thousands of documents from the department for its investigation into the Jenkins case and prison overcrowding. And last week, in response to the miscalculated sentences, two department attorneys retired under threat of being fired.
"Certainly, the mistakes made by the department of corrections have taken a significant amount of bandwidth from the attorney general's office and the governor's office," Bruning said. "We've spent a lot of our time cleaning up the mess made over at corrections."
The Department of Correctional Services didn't respond to specific questions about the execution protocol. In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Crystal Prochnow said the department still doesn't have the necessary chemicals for lethal injection.
"The department is working to identify the specific steps we will take to be prepared to carry out a court-ordered execution," Prochnow said.
Besides changing the protocol to replace sodium thiopental with another drug, as other states have done, officials could find a compounding pharmacist — who makes custom drugs for individual patients — to provide sodium thiopental.
Still, any proposed change to state rules could be challenged in court, and Nebraska lawmakers could insert themselves into the process, said Jerry Soucie, a Lincoln defense attorney who has represented several death-row inmates.
The lack of sodium thiopental remains Nebraska's biggest obstacle in carrying out executions, said J. Kirk Brown, a recently retired assistant attorney general who handled death penalty cases. Because the state doesn't manufacture its own drugs, death penalty opponents have effectively blocked executions by pressuring companies to cut off the supply.
"It's the Achilles' heel of the move to lethal injection," said Brown.
Many states have continued executions by switching drugs or finding local suppliers, and the delays in states like Nebraska anger death penalty advocates.
"It's a huge frustration," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "This is ridiculous. In cases where there are no doubts that you have the right guy — which is almost all cases — there is no reason to drag it on for more than five to six years. (Opponents) have made it cumbersome on purpose, and it doesn't need to be that cumbersome."
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha has fought for decades to abolish the death penalty. Lawmakers passed his repeal measure once, in 1979, but then-Gov. Charles Thone vetoed it.
The issue could surface again with at least 17 new lawmakers next session, but death penalty supporters said they'll work to block any repeal effort.