Senators advanced a bill from general file April 16 that would repeal Nebraska’s death penalty.
Introduced by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, LB268 would replace death penalty provisions with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The effort to end the state’s death penalty has been a career-long effort of Chambers’ since 1973.
The bill would apply retroactively to inmates currently serving capital punishment sentences. It would not prevent a sentencing court from ordering restitution or alter the authority of the state Department of Correctional Services to determine appropriate measures for incarceration of an offender.
Chambers said the death penalty should be abolished because too often people are wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. More than 150 people across the country have been removed from death row, he said, often because new DNA evidence is found to prove their innocence.
“When you have this many people who are proved to be innocent, there is no mistaking the conclusion that innocent people have been executed,” Chambers said.
Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford supported bill. An irreversible sentence such as death should not be an option in a legal system where mistakes are made, she said. Further, she said, it has been wrongly used as a threat by law enforcement to coerce confessions.
“Just having the death penalty on the books, even if rarely used, can corrupt justice even for non-death-penalty offenses,” Crawford said.
Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner would rather keep the death penalty. Only in rare circumstances, he said, do law enforcement, prosecutors and families of murder victims depend on capital punishment when seeking justice.
“I want to give [those in the criminal justice system] what they need to correctly do their job,” Kintner said. “I believe the death penalty is a sanctioned requirement for the most heinous of crimes.”
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte also opposed the bill, saying it is part of the Legislature’s responsibility to ensure that the most dangerous criminals are removed from Nebraska communities.
“The death penalty is an extension of our duty to protect civilized society,” Groene said.
Sen. Tanya Cook of Omaha disagreed that having a death penalty provides additional protections. She said her district has not seen any decrease in violent crime as a result of the death penalty, so it is not serving as a deterrent. The issue seems to be more about revenge than protection, she added.
“It’s not our role to be deliverers of vengeance,” Cook said. “Should anger be the basis of any public policy?”
Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue said his support of the bill is based partially on the cost of prosecuting and appealing death penalty cases, which is more expensive than incarcerating offenders for life. Since 1978, he said, California has spent $4 billion on capital punishment cases and likely will spend another $1 billion over the next five years.
“The state has no business playing God, and in fact, is quite bad at it,” Garrett said. “This is not an economic issue for me, it is a moral and ethical issue.”
The United States is ranked fifth in the world in the number of people executed, Garrett added, which places it after China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
“We can do better than that,” he said. “We are the greatest nation in the world and we should be demonstrating that.”
Sen. David Schnoor of Scribner disagreed that death penalty cases are more expensive to prosecute. Appeals in Nebraska are processed by salaried employees and do not require extra work or cost, he said in opposition to the bill. Only 34 appeals have been made in death row cases in Nebraska, in contrast to 5,943 appeals in non-capital-offense cases, he added.
Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash recounted his participation with the crowd outside of the Nebraska State Penitentiary that had gathered for the 1996 execution of serial killer John Joubert. Two distinct groups had formed, he said—one quietly praying and the other in celebration.
“I was on the wrong side of the debate that night and I have never forgotten it,” Coash said.
Nebraska is not likely to carry out any further executions, he added, because the state currently cannot acquire the chemicals necessary to conduct lethal injections.
“The reality is that Nebraska is done executing people,” he said.
A technical Judiciary Committee amendment was adopted 31-13 and several other amendments were withdrawn.
Senators then advanced LB268 to select file on a 30-13 vote.