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.

EDITORIALS: "Mistakes are made"

A recent editorial in Nebraska's Journal Star urged support for a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison. Among the reasons cited for its position was the risk of executing an innocent person. The editorial noted that advancements in DNA testing have shown the fallibility of the current system: “Seventeen people who were on death row have been set free after DNA testing proved they were wrongly convicted.” The editorial also pointed to more than 250 convictions that have been overturned nationwide because of DNA testing, including the Nebraska defendants known as the "Beatrice Six," who were wrongfully convicted of rape and murder but later exonerated through DNA testing. The paper cautioned against supporting the death penalty on the basis of one horrific case: “[E]ven if the system worked without flaw in that particular case, there can be no guarantee that it will work that way every time. And if the system cannot work without error - as the facts show - then the death penalty cannot be justified. Sooner or later, an innocent person will die at the hands of the state of Nebraska." Read full editorial below.

RESOURCES: Recent Legislative Acitivity on the Death Penalty

DPIC is collecting information on pending legislation related to the death penalty.  For example, at least nine states will consider bills to repeal the death penalty in 2012.  In California, a coalition called Taxpayers for Justice has been collecting signatures to place a death penalty repeal initiative on the ballot in November.  On January 25, the Washington Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on a bill to repeal the death penalty. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Debbie Regala, cited high costs as a reason for the bill: “We can keep the public safe with putting people in prison for the rest of their life, as opposed to the costly expense of executing them… It's always important and valuable for us to look at public policy and see if it's actually getting us the results that we want. When you're facing an economic crisis, you add an extra lens." Other states considering repeal bills are Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania. A few states, such as New Hampshire, have blls to expand the death penalty.

DPIC RESOURCES: New State Pages Now Available

DPIC is pleased to announce the completion of our State Information Pages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  These state profiles provide historical and current information on the death penalty for each state, including famous cases, past legislative actions, and links to key organizations and state officials.  For frequently updated information, such as execution totals, the size of death row, or the number of exonerations, see our State-by-State Database.  Readers are encouraged to send additional information, pictures, and links to organizations in their state.  You can reach the State Information Pages through the "State by State" button at the top of every page on our website or under the "Resources" tab in our main menu.

Update on Lethal Injection Issue

In a clear national trend, seven states (Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and South Carolina) have used pentobarbital instead of sodium thiopental in their executions in 2011. The most recent such execution was that of Donald Beaty in Arizona on May 25, following a temporary stay as the state made a sudden switch to the new drug.  Ohio is the only one of the seven states to use pentobarbital as the sole drug in its lethal-injection process.  At least five states (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Carolina) that acquired sodium thiopental through an overseas source have had the drug seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  In addition, Arizona was instructed by the DEA not to use its foreign sodium thiopental just prior to the May 25 execution. Arkansas and California also have supplies of sodium thiopental originally obtained from a supplier in Great Britain.  In Nebraska, questions about its supply of sodium thiopental--obtained from a company in India--has postponed the execution of Carey Dean Moore.  South Dakota's sodium thiopental was also reportedly obtained from India.  Other states like Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia have indicated they intend to switch to pentobarbital in future executions.