LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska's corrections department took a key step Thursday to prepare for the state's first execution since 1997, unveiling a new combination of lethal injection drugs that no state has ever used on an inmate before.
The state Department of Correctional Services notified death-row inmate Jose Sandoval of the lethal injection drugs to be used in his execution, although no date has been set.
State officials are required to notify an inmate of the drugs to be used at least 60 days before Nebraska's attorney general asks the state Supreme Court for an execution warrant. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said state attorneys plan to seek the warrant after the waiting period has ended.
The announcement came almost one year to the day after Nebraska voters reinstated capital punishment, overriding state lawmakers who had abolished the death penalty in defiance of Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts.
"Last year, the people of Nebraska reaffirmed that the death penalty remains an important part of protecting public safety in our state," Ricketts said in a written statement. "Today's announcement by the corrections department is the next step towards carrying out the sentences ordered by the court."
A corrections department spokeswoman said the state intends to use the sedative diazepam, commonly known as Valium; the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl citrate; the paralytic cisatracurium (sis-at-rah-KYUR'-ee-um); and potassium chloride to induce death.
The department has access to all four drugs, and all were purchased in United States, said correctional services spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith. Smith, responding to questions by email, did not say how the drugs were obtained or who provided them.
Nevada officials have been pushing to use three of those drugs in a scheduled execution on Tuesday. On Thursday, a Nevada state court judge ordered state officials not to use the paralytic cisatracurium. Federal public defenders argued that the paralytic could prevent observers from seeing if the condemnded inmate suffers during his death. Nevada officials also plan to use diazepam and fentanyl.
Sandoval, 38, was sentenced to death on five counts of first-degree murder for the September 2002 deaths of five people in a bank robbery in Norfolk, a city of 24,000 about 110 miles northwest of Omaha. It's unclear whether he has an attorney. The Norfolk lawyer who handled his most recent appeals did not immediate respond to a phone message.
"He has to be given some sort of opportunity to challenge it," said Jeffery Pickens, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, which has represented other death-row inmates. The commission cannot represent Sandoval because it defended some of the other men convicted in the crime, so it has a conflict.
Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, a longtime death penalty opponent who sponsored the repeal law in 2015, said he believes the execution announcement was politically motivated.
Ricketts vetoed the death penalty repeal measure during his first year in office, and suffered a political blow when lawmakers overrode him. The former TD Ameritrade executive also helped bankroll the petition drive to place the issue on the November 2016 ballot with $300,000 of his own money. Nebraska voters reinstated the death penalty. Ricketts is up for re-election in 2018.
"They're a good long ways from being able to carry out an execution," Chambers said. "But I think the timing is suspicious."
Chambers predicted that attorneys for Sandoval would "tear into" the state's plan and create more delays. Nebraska's last execution was in 1997, using the electric chair. The state has never carried out an execution with lethal injection drugs.
Ricketts did not address Chambers' criticism in his statement.
State officials chose a combination of drugs that has never been used before in an execution, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national group that has questioned the way executions are performed.
Dunham said the use of a paralytic could effectively hide any pain an inmate experiences during the execution, thus obscuring whether the execution was carried out without causing unconstitutional pain and suffering.
"It's literally human experimentation, because no one has done it," Dunham said. "That doesn't necessarily mean it won't work, but it means there are serious questions about it."
Potassium chloride has been used in other executions to stop an inmate's heart, but it also caused severe chemical burns during a botched execution in Florida in 2014, Dunham said.
Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte