Death penalty abolition considered

Repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska would be put to voters again — this time through a constitutional amendment — under a proposal considered March 16 by the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Terrell McKinney
Sen. Terrell McKinney

Capital punishment was abolished by the Nebraska Legislature in 2015, a decision that subsequently was reversed by voters through the state’s referendum process in 2016.

LR17CA, introduced by Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney, would place a death penalty prohibition in the Nebraska Constitution if approved by voters at the 2024 general election. Death sentences would be commuted to life imprisonment under the amendment.

McKinney said the death penalty always has been inhumane because “murder is murder.” Capital punishment also is unjust, he said, because many individuals have been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death who later were exonerated.

“If we want to advance as a civilization, we need to move away from this ‘eye for an eye’ revenge mentality,” McKinney said. “It is proven over time to be ineffective in deterring murder and only ends in more of what it’s trying to prevent — death — and leads to an endless cycle of violence.”

Additionally, McKinney said, life in prison gives an individual time to think about their actions and can lead to the possibility of rehabilitation.

Christy Hargesheimer, the Nebraska state death penalty action coordinator for Amnesty International, spoke in support of LR17CA. To date, she said, 191 people in the U.S. have been exonerated from death row for factors relating to prosecutorial misconduct, biased juries, witness errors and forensic errors. Additionally, she said, racial bias has been a factor in deciding whether a murder is tried as a capital case.

“Currently, the Nebraska death row has eight minorities — Black and Hispanic — and three white inmates,” Hargesheimer said. “A study in Nebraska … showed that the murder of a white victim by a person of color is a determining factor in deciding whether or not the case would result in the death penalty.”

Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, also spoke in support. A person’s dignity is not lost, he said, even after the commission of a very serious crime.

“Also, the death penalty disproportionately affects people of color, particularly Black and Latino defendants, those living in poverty and those with intellectual disabilities or severe mental illness,” Venzor said, “which leads to a failure by society to care for ‘the least of these among us.’”

Alex Houchin, representing Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, testified in favor of the proposal. The death penalty process is cruel and biased in its application, he said, and it offers a “false promise” of justice for victims’ families.

Additionally, Houchin said, data shows that Nebraska has spent over $800 million to execute four people during the 46 years that capital punishment has been in place, which is money that could have been spent elsewhere.

No one testified in opposition to LR17CA and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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