Nebraska

Nebraska

Nebraska Repeal Vote Reflects Growing Republican Opposition to Death Penalty

Nebraska's unicameral legislature recently voted 30-13 in favor of repealing the State's death penalty, advancing the bill to a second round of legislative review. (In Nebraska, a bill must pass three times before it is sent to the Governor.)  A majority (17 out of 30) of Republican legislators voted in favor of the bill, which was also supported by 12 Democrats and one Independent legislator. Sen. Colby Coash (R-Lincoln), said, "If any other system in our government was as ineffective and inefficient as is our death penalty, we conservatives would have gotten rid of it a long, long time ago." Sen. Tommy Garrett (R-Papillion) said he was once a "staunch proponent" of capital punishment, but, "I’ve come to believe that the death penalty is simply not good government.” A Washington Times op-ed by conservative commentator Drew Johnson noted that Nebraska's repeal bill has support from victims' families, the Catholic Bishops of Nebraska, and Nebraska Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. Johnson also pointed to the DNA exonerations of the "Beatrice Six," who gave coerced confessions and pleas after being threatened with the death penalty, as evidence that "government has no business exercising the power to kill its residents, whether in Nebraska or elsewhere." A recent Pew poll showed that support for the death penalty among conservative Republicans had dropped by 7 percentage points since 2011.

RECENT LEGISLATION: Varied Coalition Seeks Repeal of Nebraska's Death Penalty

UPDATE: The repeal bill unanimously passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Mar. 9. Earlier: At a Nebraska legislative hearing on March 4, dozens of people testified in favor of abolishing the death penalty, including representatives from families of murder victims, from law enforcement, the judiciary, and Nebraska Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. Among the co-sponsors of the bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole are seven Republican legislators. Jim Davidsaver, a retired Lincoln police captain, submitted testimony saying, "[M]y professional experience has shown me that our state’s death penalty does not make us any safer. Its exorbitant cost actually detracts from programs that would promote the overall health, safety and welfare of our communities." Elle Hanson, who lost three loved ones to murder, said the death penalty was applied arbitrarily, "I want to share the pain and outrage I feel when I hear politicians say that we need the death penalty for the worst of the worst. This is an absurd notion. I guarantee you, each of our losses is the worst of the worst." Sen. Ernie Chambers (pictured) of Omaha, who introduced the bill, said he expects it to be debated by the full legislature this session. Only one person, a County Attorney, testified against the bill.

NEW VOICES: Retired Police Captain Says Repealing Death Penalty Is "Smart on Crime"

Jim Davidsaver, a retired police captain with over 25 years experience in the Lincoln (Nebraska) Police Department, recently advocated for repeal of the state's death penalty from a law enforcement perspective. In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal-Star, Davidsaver said, "[M]y professional experience has shown me that our state’s death penalty doesn’t keep us any safer. Its exorbitant cost actually detracts from programs that would promote the overall health, safety and welfare of our communities." He highlighted the financial tradeoff between the death penalty and other crime prevention measures: "The millions of dollars we’ve spent on the death penalty would have been much better invested in more police officers, additional resources or training for our current officers." He concluded, "The cheaper, more intelligent alternative for our state is life without the possibility of parole. Repealing the death penalty does not mean we are ‘soft’ on crime. It means we are smart on crime."

Nebraska Attorney General Says Death Penalty in Limbo

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said executions in the state are unlikely to resume for at least another year because of the scarcity of lethal injection drugs. "Death row is sort of in limbo today," he said, adding that efforts to find alternative drugs have been diverted due to other state concerns. Nebraska's last execution was in 1997, by electrocution. The state's execution protocol calls for use of sodium thiopental, which is no longer being manufactured for the U.S. Earlier, the state had obtained sodium thiopental from a distributor in India, but the drug expired this year. The Department of Corrections would have to rewrite its protocol to allow for different drugs. State Sen. Ernie Chambers said he would work to prevent such changes: “I would fight tooth and nail... against what Bruning is talking about.” Bruning, who is leaving office in two months, said it will be up to the new governor and attorney general to decide “if and when” they want to address the state’s death penalty.

NEW VOICES: Nebraska Senator Changes Course After Hearing from Victims' Families

As Nebraska's legislature began debate on a bill to repeal the death penalty, one senator explained how his views on the issue had evolved. In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal Star, Sen. Colby Coash said that his participation with a group celebrating an execution led him to oppose the death penalty: "I made a decision during my shame that I would no longer be a part of someone's death." A second influence was his conversations with relatives of murder victims. He quoted one family member, Merriam Thimm-Kelle, who testified to the legislature about her experience, "Death penalty supporters say that carrying out the death penalty is family closure. Closure is a myth. The death penalty does absolutely nothing for families except more pain." On March 19, the Judiciary Committee approved a repeal bill without dissent. A vote in the entire unicameral legislature may take place on May 13. (UPDATE: The repeal bill was stopped by a filibuster on May 14. The vote to end the filibuster was 28-21, but 33 votes were needed.) Read the full op-ed below.

NEW VOICES: Editorial Signals a Change in Position in Nebraska

A recent editorial in the Nebraska Star-Herald indicated a shift in its position on capital punishment. Although the paper has always supported the death penalty in the past, its latest editorial described the death penalty as "a mockery of justice" and a "charade." The editors continued to express the belief that some murderers might deserve capital punishment, but the infrequency and unpredictability of executions led them to conclude that "[S]o few killers are actually put to death that it’s become a judicial aberration." The paper pointed out that "only three people have been put to death since 1976" and "[n]one of the current 11 death row inmates are scheduled for execution," leading them to the position that "Maybe it’s time to put an end to the charade." Read the full editorial below.

MULTIMEDIA: Nebraska Debate on the Death Penalty

On November 28, the University of Nebraska hosted a dialogue on the death penalty with J. Kirk Brown (left), Nebraska's Solicitor General, and Professor Michael Radelet (right) of the University of Colorado. Mr. Kirk was the state's counsel of record for all of its executions since 1978. Prof. Radelet is a well-known death penalty expert, researcher, and the author of several works on innocence and the death penalty. The discussion was titled: “The Death Penalty: Justice, Retribution and Dollars” and explored whether the state should continue or abandon its death penalty.  A video of the dialogue is available at this link.  Since 1978, Nebraska has carried out three executions, but none since 1997.  There are 11 inmates on the state's death row.  Learn more about Nebraska's death penalty here.

EDITORIALS: The Fallibility of Forensic Evidence Argues Against the Death Penalty

A recent editorial in the Lincoln Journal Star of Nebraska concluded that experience with inaccurate evidence from crime labs shows that the death penalty cannot be trusted in the taking of life.  The paper called for the repeal of the death penalty based on a case in which the state's CSI director tampered with evidence in a murder case. Recently, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the conviction of former CSI chief David Kofoed for planting evidence in a double murder. Kofoed placed a speck of blood in a car belonging to a suspect, which resulted in two innocent men being held in jail for several months. The editorial said such crime-lab error has also been found elsewhere: “You will be - or should be - appalled at the number of times that crime labs turn out to be providing inaccurate and phony evidence. The problems crop up in New York, San Francisco, Houston and many points in between. Sometimes the problem is sloppiness. Sometimes technicians are manufacturing evidence deliberately. Sometimes the science itself turns out to be untrustworthy.” The editorial cited a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences that criticized some of the science behind crime lab testimony. The report found that, other than DNA technology, “no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source,” and that, “Substantive information and testimony based on faulty forensic science analyses may have contributed to wrongful convictions of innocent people.”  The editorial concluded, "The fallibility of the criminal justice system has been demonstrated again and again. Innocent people have been executed in the past and will be in the future," and thus people should "support repeal of the death penalty."  Read full editorial below.

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