Nebraska

Nebraska

Nebraska Exonerees Awarded $28 Million, Prosecutor Says Case Made Him Oppose Death Penalty

A federal court jury has awarded six Nebraska exonerees (pictured, at their exoneration) $28 million in damages for official misconduct that led to their wrongful convictions in the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson. The "Beatrice Six," as the group came to be known, were falsely accused of the killing and threatened with the death penalty. Five of the defendants—James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, and Tom Winslow—agreed to plea bargains or pled no contest to avoid possible death sentences. The sixth—Joseph E. White—demanded a jury trial, and was convicted. All six were exonerated by DNA evidence tested in 2008. On July 6, the jury found that the Gage County, Nebraska Sheriff's Office had been reckless in its investigation and had fabricated evidence. The $28 million damages award exceeds the entire annual budget of Gage County by $1 million, and the county does not have an insurance policy to cover court judgments resulting from law enforcement misconduct. At a press conference on July 8, Randall Rintour, the Gage County prosecutor who reopened the Beatrice Six case in 2008, said the case had changed his views on the death penalty. “It happened right here in our backyard. We can’t say it’s not possible to make a mistake because we did, we made a huge one," he said. "Our ability to execute all the ... murderers we can is not worth the death of one innocent individual at the hands of the state." State Sen. Burke Harr, a former Douglas County deputy prosecutor, joined Rintour in urging Nebraskans to retain the state's repeal of the death penalty, which is the subject of a November referendum. Sen. Harr, one of 30 legislators who voted in favor of repeal, said, "The death penalty is just that, it’s forever. There’s no coming back."

Nebraska Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Death Penalty Referendum

The Nebraska Supreme Court heard oral argument on May 25 in a challenge to the proposed November referendum that could reverse the state legislature's 2015 repeal of the death penalty (vote results pictured left). Christy and Richard Hargesheimer, who oppose the death penalty, are challenging the documents submitted by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, the organization supporting the referendum, on the grounds that the group violated state law when they failed to list Governor Pete Ricketts as a sponsor of the referendum. Nebraska state law requires proponents of a ballot initiative to disclose all of the sponsors of the proposed referendum. Ricketts vetoed the legislature's 2015 repeal of the death penalty, but the legislature voted 30-19 to override his veto. Ricketts then personally contributed $200,000 and, in combination, he and his father donated approximately one-third of all the money raised by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty to gather the signatures needed to place the referendum on the ballot. Much of the argument Wednesday focused on the definition of who is a "sponsor" for the purposes of a referendum campaign. Alan Peterson, an attorney for the Hargesheimers, said the sponsor is the primary initiating force, "the initiator, the instigator." Attorneys for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty argued that the sponsor is someone willing to take legal responsibility for the petition paperwork and said Peterson's definition was "unworkable and would chill involvement in the democratic process." Peterson also argued that a key document required to place the referendum on the November ballot had been filed improperly because it was not an affidavit or sworn statement, as required by Nebraska law. A trial court ruled in February in favor of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, leading to the Hargesheimer's appeal. [UPDATE: On July 8, 2016, the Nebraska Supreme Court that Governor Ricketts’ financial and other support for the petition drive did not make him a “sponsor” of the referendum, and therefore proponents' of the referendum did not have to disclose his involvement in the petition drive. The court rejected the Hargesheimers' efforts to remove the referendum from the ballot.] 

Support for the Death Penalty by Republican Legislators No Longer a Sure Thing

One year after the Nebraska legislature voted to repeal the death penalty and overrode a gubernatorial veto of that measure, actions in legislatures across the country suggest that the state's efforts signalled a growing movement against the death penalty by conservative legislators and that support for the death penalty among Republican legislators is no longer a given. Reporting in The Washington Post, Amber Phillips writes that Republican legislators in ten states sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to repeal capital punishment during the current legislative sessions. She reports that although these repeal bills have not become law, they have made unprecedented progress in several states. In Utah, a repeal bill sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart (pictured)—a former death penalty proponent who supported the state's firing squad law—came closest, winning approval in the state Senate and in a House committee. Missouri's bill saw floor debate in the Senate, and Kentucky's received a committee hearing for the first time in 40 years. An effort to return death penalty support to the platform of the Kansas Republican Party failed by a vote of 90-75, and the Kansas College Republicans passed a resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty, highlighting a generational divide on the issue. Dalton Glasscock, former president of Kansas College Republicans, said, "My generation is looking for consistency on issues. I believe if we say we're pro-life, we need to be truly pro-life, from conception to death." The National Association of Evangelicals also changed their stance on the issue, acknowledging "a growing number of evangelicals," who now call for abolition. Though a majority of Republicans still support the death penalty, Phillips writes that "it's notable that a year after we wondered whether Nebraska was an anomaly or the start of a trend, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that conservative opposition to the death penalty may indeed be a trend -- a small but growing one."

U.S. Supreme Court Orders Alabama to Reconsider Constitutionality of Its Death Penalty Sentencing Procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court has vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and has directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Johnson, represented by lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), had challenged the constitutionality of his death sentence, which was imposed by a trial judge after a nonunanimous jury vote of 10-2 recommending a death sentence, as violating the Supreme Court's decision earlier this year in Hurst v. Florida. According to Johnson's Supreme Court pleadings, the trial court had instructed the jury that it did not need to unanimously agree to any particular fact that would have made Johnson eligible for the death penalty, nor did it have to identify for the court any specific aggravating factors that it found to be present in the case. Hurst ruled that Florida's capital sentencing procedures, which permitted critical factual findings necessary to impose a death sentence to be made by the trial judge, rather than the jury, violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Johnson's lawyers argued that Alabama's sentencing scheme suffers from the same constitutional defect and that, "[i]n Bart Johnson's case, like in Hurst, the judge imposed the death penalty based on finding two aggravating factors that were not clearly found by the jury." Bryan Stevenson, EJI's executive director, said that the Court's ruling could have systemic implications: "This ruling implicates all [capital] cases in Alabama. We have argued that Alabama's statute no longer conforms to current constitutional requirements. The Court's ruling today supports that view." In March, an Alabama Circuit Judge barred the death penalty in four cases on the grounds that Alabama's sentencing scheme was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision to order reconsideration of Johnson's case could also affect a court challenge currently pending in the Delaware Supreme Court over the constitutionality of its death penalty statute, which employs similar sentencing procedures. Likewise, defense lawyers in Nebraska have argued that the death penalty statute in that state — which has been repealed by the legislature pending the outcome of a ballot initiative in November — impermissibly vests key fact-finding authority in the trial judge, rather than the jury. 

Victim's Cousin in Oklahoma Death Penalty Case Speaks of "Awful" Guilt Upon Learning Defendants Were Actually Innocent

After Debbie Carter was raped and murdered in Ada, Oklahoma in 1982, police and prosecutors told her cousin, Christy Sheppard (pictured) that Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were guilty of the crime. In 1988, Williamson was convicted and sentenced to death; Fritz received a life sentence. Eleven years later, the pair were exonerated when DNA testing excluded them as perpetrators and pointed to another man who had once been a suspect. Sheppard, now a criminal justice counselor and victim advocate in Ada, recently shared the story of her experience learning that Williamson and Fritz were actually innocent. “The guilt has been awful,” she said. “It is horrible to think that you prayed, wished, helped and condoned to bring harm to someone else and then to find out that it wasn’t deserved and later learn what they went through.” Sheppard said her family was shocked, "It was like being in a Twilight Zone. It fit nothing we knew to be true." The experience changed her views on the death penalty, which she had previously supported. "In theory, it seems like that’s the way it ought to be: The punishment fits the crime. But when you pick it apart, it’s just a mess," she said. Sheppard is serving on the recently-announced Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, and is also campaigning on behalf of Retain a Just Nebraska, a group working to defeat a ballot initiative that would reverse that state's legislative repeal of the death penalty.

Amid Unavailability of Lethal Injection Drugs, States Push Legal Limits to Carry Out Executions

"Over time lethal injection has become only more problematic and chaotic,” Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School, told the New York Times, summarizing the ongoing battles that have led states to adopt new drug sources or alternative methods of execution. Several states have obtained or sought drugs using sources that may violate pharmaceutical regulations. For the execution of Alfredo Prieto, Virginia obtained pentobarbital from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which purchased it from a compounding pharmacy whose identity is shielded by the state's secrecy law. "Even if the transactions between states do not comply with law, there is no recourse for death-sentenced prisoners," said Megan McCracken, an expert in lethal injection at the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Both Nebraska and Ohio received warnings from the Food and Drug Administration that their attempts to purchase sodium thiopental from overseas suppliers violated federal law regarding the importation of drugs. Oklahoma executed Charles Warner in violation of its own execution protocol, substituting an unauthorized chemical, potassium acetate, for the potassium chloride its regulations require. Other states have turned to alternative execution methods: Tennessee reauthorized use of the electric chair, while Oklahoma passed a bill to make nitrogen gas asphyxiation its backup method. Louisiana prison officials also recommended using nitrogen gas, but the state has not taken action on that recommendation. The scramble for lethal injection drugs has delayed executions across the country. A challenge to Mississippi's protocol has halted executions until at least next year. A Montana judge put executions on hold because the state's proposed drug cocktail violated state law, and either the drugs that comply with state law are not produced in the U.S. and may not be imported or the manufacturer refuses to sell the drug for executions. In Oklahoma, the Attorney General requested an indefinite hold in order to review lethal injection procedures after the state obtained the wrong drug for the execution of Richard Glossip.

Nebraska's Attempt to Import Execution Drug Halted in India

A shipment of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic once widely used in executions, was recently stopped in India before it could reach Nebraska. The Indian distributor sold more than $50,000 worth of sodium thiopental to the state in May, but the shipment was stopped before leaving the country because of "improper or missing paperwork." FedEx said it halted the shipment because it did not have Food And Drug Administration clearance: "As with any international importation of a drug, data about that shipment is transmitted to federal agencies in advance, including U.S. Customs and the Food and Drug Administration. If the shipment is authorized, we will deliver it to the recipient; if it is not, we will return it to the foreign shipper." Nebraska purchased the drugs despite the FDA's warning that importation of sodium thiopental for executions violates federal law. The FDA has consistently said that it will not allow execution drugs into the U.S. because the producers are not FDA-credited and the drugs are not approved for that purpose.

Ohio Warned Not to Import Execution Drug

A Food and Drug Administration letter to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction indicated the state was considering importing sodium thiopental from overseas for use in executions. The letter warned the department that importing the drug would violate federal law: "Please note that there is no FDA approved application for sodium thiopental, and it is illegal to import an unapproved new drug into the United States." A similar letter was sent to Nebraska officials after the state spent over $50,000 in an attempt to obtain lethal injection drugs from a source in India. All executions were put on hold in Ohio after the botched execution of Dennis McGuire in 2014, as the state has pursued a new execution protocol. The potential foreign supplier was not revealed because Ohio, like many other states, keeps the identity of execution-drug suppliers secret.

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