Death Penalty: No
Nebraska State Capitol. Photo by Briana Gauger, 2011.
The Beatrice Six
The 1985 case of the rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson in the town of Beatrice resulted in the arrest of six people, even though the original FBI investigation concluded that the killer had acted alone. Joseph White was convicted of the crime in 1989 and sentenced to life in prison, and the eyewitness testimony that led to White’s conviction came from the five co-defendants in the case. Of them, three received sentences of 10 years in prison in exchange for their testimony, while another was scheduled for release in 2009. The final defendant, Thomas Winslow, pleaded no contest to aiding and abetting first-degree murder and received a 50-year sentence.
In 2008, Joseph White became the first post-conviction DNA exoneration in Nebraska's history when he won a historic legal case that overturned his 1985 murder conviction. The DNA Testing Act passed by the Nebraska Legislature in 2000 allowed White's motion for testing, which showed the forensic evidence found at the crime scene came from one man, and that man was not Joseph White.
Five of the six people charged in this case pleaded to lesser charges, when they were in no way involved in the crime, in order to avoid the death penalty. Six innocent people feared being convicted and sentenced to death, and the only person to maintain his innocence in court was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The Starkweather case was one of the most heavily publicized mass murders in U.S. history, drawing national attention both to Nebraska and to the psychological issues surrounding disaffected youth. The saga began when 19-year-old Charles Starkweather killed a gas station attendant in December 1957. Then, in late January 1958, Charlie and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate began an eight-day murder spree that started with the murder of Caril's family, and eventually led to ten total deaths before they were captured on the highway outside Douglas, Wyoming. Tried and convicted of murder, Charles Starkweather was executed at the Nebraska State Penitentiary on June 25, 1959. Caril Fugate was also convicted, and her initial life sentence was commuted to a 30 to 50 year sentence in 1973. In 1976, after serving 18 years, Fugate was paroled and she eventually resettled in Michigan.
William Marion was executed in Gage County in 1887. He was convicted on circumstantial evidence of murdering his business partner, John Cameron, after a man dressed in Cameron's clothes was found dead. The trial was such a local sensation that it was moved to the Opera House to accommodate a larger audience. An editorial in the local newspaper said "it was because of the indignation among the people and the fact that Marion had no friends and no money, that he was selected to satisfy the public wrath." His "victim" was seen alive in 1891 and a posthumous pardon was granted in 1987, 100 years after Marion was executed.
Mead Shumway was executed in 1909 for crushing the skull of a Gage County farmwoman. Three years after the execution, another man allegedly confessed on his deathbed to killing the woman. However, the only evidence we have for the confession is from an article in the 1919 issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology. Another twist to this case came when a member of Shumway's jury committed suicide soon after the conviction. The Juror was reportedly despondent about going along with the rest of the jury and believed that Shumway was innocent.
In 2001, Jeremy Sheets was released after prosecutors decided not to retry his case. Sheets was sentenced to death in 1997 for the 1992 kidnapping and murder of a young woman in Omaha. The Nebraska Supreme Court overturned Sheets' conviction because there was no evidence against him other than a taped confession by another man, Adam Barnett, who said he committed the crime with Sheets. Barnett hung himself before Sheets’ trial, so Sheets was unable to confront his accuser and thus the tape could not be used against him.
Notable Commutations, Clemencies, and Sentence Reversals
In 2000, the Nebraska Supreme Court vacated the death sentence of Randy Reeves because the court sentenced him with improper procedures. Reeves had been sentenced to death for the drug-induced murder of Janet Mesner and Victoria Lamm in Lincoln in 1980. Reeves was sentenced to two life terms instead.
In 2001, Peter Hochstein and Michael Anderson were taken off death row and given life in prison because their sentencing judicial panels could not reach a unanimous decision to impose the death sentence. Anderson and Hochstein were sentenced to death for the 1975 murder-for-hire of an Omaha businessman.
Milestones in Abolition
In 1979, the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Charley Thone.
In 1999, the Nebraska Legislature was the first state in the nation to pass a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty during a study on the fairness of its application. The fact that the moratorium was vetoed by Governor Mike Johanns does not diminish the progress that its passage represents. The legislature unanimously overrode the Governor's veto of the appropriations bill that funded a study on the fairness of the death penalty in Nebraska.
In 2007, the Nebraska Unicameral came within one vote of passing a repeal bill.
In 2008 the electric chair was ruled unconstitutional by the Nebraska Supreme Court, creating a de facto moratorium. A bill to instate lethal injection as the state's method of execution was passed in 2009.
In 2015, the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty. The bill was vetoed by Governor Pete Ricketts, but the 49-member legislature overrode the veto by a vote of 30-19, the bare number of votes necessary for an override. Proponents of the death penalty have initiated a petition drive to restore the death penalty.
Other Interesting Facts
In every session of the legislature since 1981, senators have introduced a bill to abolish the DP. While there have been years in which the abolition bill has advanced out of committee, and even one year in which it initially had 25 sponsors (out of 49 senators), Nebraska did not repeal its death penalty until 2015. When Nebraska repealed the death penalty in 2015, it became the first state with a predominantly Republican legislature to do so since North Dakota abolished the death penalty in 1973.
Many thanks to Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty for contributing to this page.