Letter to the Editor

Too late to fix Nebraska's death penalty

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The failed attempts to import illegal lethal injection drugs from India into Nebraska are just the latest in the saga around our death penalty system. Those paying attention are well aware that the system is broken. In that respect, I agree wholeheartedly with the McCook Gazette editorial board, but I also believe they missed a crucial point in the editorial "If state's death penalty is broken, it can still be fixed". They've overlooked the fact that we have tried, fiercely, to fix the death penalty.

Nebraska's last execution was in 1997, just shy of 20 years ago. In those two decades we've had enthusiastically pro-death penalty governors, attorney generals, and majorities in the Unicameral who have pledged to get our death machine up and running. Yet we've not been able to it happen, in our 19 years of trying, we've not been able to fix the system.

This was a driving force for the super-majority of Senators (16 Republicans, 12 Democrats, and 1 Independent) who voted to end our death penalty system last year. We've all studied the issue and its history carefully. Those of us who have served several terms were directly part of efforts to study the costs of the system, mitigate the execution of innocent people, find a constitutional execution method, and ensure greater fairness in the system -- among our other attempts to "fix" the system. But it wasn't possible.

Nebraska isn't the only state to reach the conclusion that the death penalty is simply too flawed to fix. The majority of states in the U.S. either don't have death penalty laws or haven't executed anyone in over ten years. State after state is recognizing there is no way to have a workable death penalty.

Some of the problems with our death penalty system can't be changed because of mandates from the United States Supreme Court. None of us want to execute an innocent person, and after over 150 innocent people have been found on our nation's death rows, sometimes after rotting there for decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has insisted on safeguards that end up making the death penalty process tremendously long. Nebraska has had our own problems with innocence. The Beatrice Six served a combined 77 years for a crime they were innocent of. Several of them confessed to the murder after being threatened with the death penalty.

Another example of our failed system is seen in the experience of my friend Mimi Kelle. Mimi's brother was murdered by a man who ended up on Nebraska's death row. Mimi supported his sentence for the first decade, but then her patience wore thin. She realized that all her family was getting out their prolonged entrenchment with the justice system was high profile appeals of a man they'd rather not read about in the paper. She started advocating that no other families be given the false promise of the death penalty. Her wish was granted when we voted to end the death penalty. This took place the same week her bother's killer died on death row, of natural causes, after 30 years. That is a broken system with real victims. Only when we admit our death penalty is unfixable will Mimi get her wish and we'll no longer make false promises to other victims' families.

There are other costs. Estimates range, but economists all agree complicated death penalty cases and lengthy appeals make the death penalty much more expensive than life imprisonment.

I understand how strongly some support the death penalty. Several of the Senators who voted for its end last year philosophically support the punishment.

But just as Nebraskans will try to fix something that's broken, they'll also recognize when it's time to cut our losses and move forward.

If I had a tractor sitting in my field that I had been unable to start for 20 years, you'd think I was crazy if I planned to invest more time and money in hopes of it running once again. Nebraskans are better and more sensible than that.

It's time to end the death penalty once and for all and replace it with life in prison.

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