A vial containing fentanyl.
Image: AP

For the first time in U.S. history, a death row inmate has been killed with a lethal injection containing fentanyl, a potent drug at the heart of the ongoing opioid overdose crisis.

The execution of Carey Dean Moore happened this morning at Nebraska State Penitentiary, as reported by the Omaha World-Herald. Moore, 60, was convicted of murdering Omaha taxi drivers Reuel Van Ness Jr. and Maynard Helgeland in 1979, and was one of the country’s longest-serving death row inmates. The execution by lethal injection marks a first for the state of Nebraska, and the first time a U.S. state has used a chemical cocktail containing fentanyl to kill a prisoner. This unprecedented mode of execution could represent a new way of executing death row inmates, both in Nebraska and potentially other U.S. states.

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Carey Dean Moore
Image: AP

At 10:24 am local time, Moore was administered the first of four drugs used for the experimental lethal injection, according to the Omaha World-Herald. In addition to the fentanyl citrate—a powerful opioid that inhibits breathing and knocks out consciousness—he received a deadly cocktail that included the tranquilizer diazepam, the muscle relaxant cisatracurium besylate, and potassium chloride, which stops heart function.

Seven minutes after the initial injection, Moore’s face began to turn red, then turned purple, according to Grant Schulte, an official witness from the Associated Press. There appeared to be no complications, with the Lancaster County coroner declaring Moore dead at 10:47 a.m. Speaking to the press later, Corrections Director Scott Frakes said the execution was carried out with “professionalism, respect for the process, and dignity for all involved.”

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The use of fentanyl to kill a death row inmate is another example of prison officials having to find alternatives to traditional methods, given the ongoing shortage of execution drugs. Earlier this year, nitrogen gas was used in Oklahoma for a similar reason.

Drugs for lethal injections are in short supply because pharmaceutical companies don’t want their products or brand associated with killing. In the case of Moore’s execution, two unnamed pharmaceutical companies tried to prevent the execution from happening out of concern that their reputations would be tainted. A federal court denied their request, saying pharmaceutical companies can’t prove their drug was actually used in the execution because prison officials don’t disclose the identity of their drug suppliers. Still, Moore’s execution raises legitimate ethical concerns about the use of fentanyl, as well as about the untested four-drug cocktail, which had never been used before to kill a prisoner.

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This is the first execution to happen in Nebraska since 1997, when the state used the electric chair. The state abolished capital punishment in 2015, but it was reinstated by a referendum one year later, when Nebraskans voted overwhelmingly to bring it back. Moore’s execution represents the state’s 38th sanctioned execution.

Moore had seen previous execution dates cancelled and rescheduled, and was reportedly frustrated with the repeated delays, even telling his lawyers that he wanted to be executed. In a statement, Danielle Conrad, the executive director of Nebraska’s ACLU branch, said the long road to Moore’s execution, which dragged on for 38 years, proves the death penalty “is a broken process from start to finish and should be abolished nationwide.”

There are currently 11 men on Nebraska’s death row, and it’s not clear when and if the state will execute any of them, nor how the executions will be administered.

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[Omaha World Herald, New York Times, BBC]