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.

OPINION: Is it time to end the death penalty in Nebraska?

We’ve always favored capital punishment for murder in Nebraska, in large part because the public favors it and because what a self-governing people want ought to count for something, even in the 21st century.

In practice, it’s become a mockery of justice. Only 37 people have ever been executed in the state’s entire history. And despite dozens of murders in the state every year, only three people have been put to death since 1976.

Eleven people now sit on death row, including one who’s been there for more than 30 years. To the state’s court system, neither the law nor what the people want matter. The legal community is rife with death-penalty opponents. Judges and courts have piled on ridiculous layers of obstacles, turning every capital murder case into what amounts to a sequence of several circus trials: one for the murder itself, one to determine whether the case merits the death penalty and one automatic appeal to a three-judge panel.

On top of that, the state Supreme Court capriciously ruled in 2008 that the state’s use of the electric chair — in use since 1920 — suddenly constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Nebraska Constitution, effectively staying all death sentences in Nebraska.

And when the state adopted lethal injection as a more humane manner of execution, the opposition revved up again — in one case arguing that the chemicals used in executions, obtained from a source in India, might be too impure to use on a killer who murdered two cab drivers so that he could buy drugs off the street.

Even in cases that clear all the hurdles, execution isn’t guaranteed. Since 1976, 31 murderers have been granted clemency.

And any murderer younger than 18 or anyone deemed “mentally challenged” gets an automatic pass from facing the death penalty.

Against that backdrop, the Legislature is planning once again to debate doing away with capital punishment. The bill is the priority of longtime death penalty foe Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who wants to outlaw executions and replace them with life without parole. Those in favor usually argue that once in awhile an innocent person gets put to death, Those opposed are outraged by the prospect of housing and feeding murderers for what often amounts to decades, and point out that the number of people who get away with murder could fill an arena.

Although the streets of Omaha alone are a weekend shooting gallery, not one Nebraska murderer has been executed since lethal injection was adopted in 2009. In fact, no murderer has been put to death in the state since Robert E. Williams in 1997. None of the current 11 death row inmates are scheduled for execution because of the pending legal challenge involving one of the three lethal injection drugs.

Maybe it’s time to put an end to the charade.

A total of 18 states don’t allow capital punishment. We still believe that some crimes are so heinous, and some criminals so irredeemable, that the death penalty ought to be an option. But so few killers are actually put to death that it’s become a judicial aberration. If notorious mass murderer Charley Starkweather and Robert E. Williams qualify, then why are Raymond Mata, who kept a child’s skull as a trophy, and Jeffrey Hessler, who raped and murdered a Gering teenager, still around?

Part of the answer to that is that Nebraska death penalty cases are a gold mine for lawyers who get paid, usually by the taxpayers, to drag them out for as long as possible. Critics of the death penalty like to point out that it’s more expensive to put a killer to death than to lock him up for life, although they conveniently fail to point out that if death sentences were carried out on any sort of sensible schedule, that wouldn’t be the case.

Our main concern is that a legal bureaucracy that ignores the death penalty could just as easily ignore the mandate concerning “without parole.” Already, plenty of people complain about the high cost of locking up dangerous felons and advocate turning them loose among law-abiding people once they promise to be good.

If Chambers and his allies succeed in executing capital punishment, we’ll just have to hope that enough sensible legislators remain to ensure that a life sentence for murder means just what it says.

(Editorial, “Is it time to end the death penalty in Nebraska?,” Nebraska Star-Herald, March 28, 2013). Read more Editorials. See New Voices.