"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

State senators call Nebraska's death penalty system broken beyond repair

Nebraska: Gathering signatures against the death penalty repeal
Nebraska: Gathering signatures against the death penalty repeal
Several arguments were advanced on Monday morning by state Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln and state Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island in urging Nebraska voters to uphold the action of the Legislature in doing away with the death penalty.

Voters will be asked in November to retain or reject the Legislature's decision to abolish the death penalty.

Speaking at a press conference at Nathan Detroit's in Grand Island, both Coash and Gloor argued that the system for enforcing the death penalty in Nebraska is broken beyond repair.

"Going on next year, it will be 20 years since we've actually used it," Coash said of the death penalty. He noted that, when he was elected to the Legislature, he promised voters that, if he found government that wasn't working, he would do all he could to get rid of it.

"I think the death penalty certainly fit that bill as we debated it," said Coash, who served 8 years on the Judiciary Committee. "We looked at this issue from all sides ... and our conclusion was this is a system we couldn't fix and we were better off without it."

Coash said one question that was raised repeatedly during the Legislature's debate last year was what would happen to people serving life in prison if Nebraska got rid of the death penalty. "Does that mean that people who have a life sentence would now be getting out?"

Coash said he asked the Nebraska attorney general for an opinion on that issue.

"His answer was, 'Life means life,' and a person sentenced to life is not going to get out of prison," Coash said.

"Nothing about what the Legislature did changes anything with the parole process, and a person sentenced to life is not going to be eligible for parole," Coash said. "The only way that a person sentenced to life can ever get out of prison is if the attorney general, the governor and the secretary of state decide to commute that person's sentence."

Coash said he wants to make sure that all Nebraska voters understand that fact before they vote in the November general election.

He said that system of 2 of the top 3 highest elected officials in Nebraska needing to cast votes to commute a life sentence could have happened 5 years ago when the death penalty was the law in Nebraska, it could happen today when there is no death penalty statute, or it could happen a year from now, no matter what voters decide in November.

Gloor noted that, for a long time, he supported having the death penalty in Nebraska.

"I don't have an ethical problem with the death penalty," Gloor said, which is evident from some of his previous votes. "I don't have any religious persuasions that influence me."

However, Gloor said he does have a record as a person who can make difficult decisions. He supported the death penalty through two rounds of debate last year before he changed his mind.

"Why did I change my mind? It became clear to me, for reasons that Sen. Coash just pointed out, we're not going to be able to implement the death penalty," he said. "There are a host of reasons behind that. I think we're all familiar with the lack of the ability to get the drugs necessary for injection."

However, legal wrangling and the appeals process also make it impossible to carry out the death penalty in Nebraska. Gloor said that made him look at the "cost associated with what is basically spinning our wheels and saying, this makes no sense for the state of Nebraska."

Gloor said he has listened to the surviving family members of murder victims who have politely told him that he is not the expert on the death penalty. He said those people are the ones who get pulled back into hearings as the state attempts to carry out the death penalty.

Gloor said they tell him their decades of experience make them believe Nebraska is incapable of carrying out the death penalty.

Some people running for re-election are deliberately stirring up anger and vitriol about the death penalty issue without researching how the system actually works, he said.

Gloor said he understands the emotional pull of pro-death-penalty arguments, because he was once influenced by them. But if state senators were faced with any other state system as broken as the death penalty, he said, they would be expected to fix it.

Gloor said he hopes people can look at his example and pull away from all the emotional arguments surrounding the death penalty and see that it is simply not working, which is why it should be abolished.

Regardless of the vote's outcome in November, the death penalty will not be carried out, Gloor said. People should learn about the real expenses involved in trying to carry out the death penalty. They should hold elected officials accountable when they favor the death penalty but are unable to carry it out.

If the death penalty is reinstated, Gloor said, voters must hold pro-death-penalty politicians accountable if they fail to carry out the law.

Conversely, Coash wondered if it will take 25 years or 30 years without an execution before Nebraska voters believe the system is broken. Citizens were told 8 years ago that the "last hurdle" to carrying out the death penalty was changing the method to lethal injection, yet no execution has happened since then.

Coash said the death penalty's emotional pull is because death row inmates have committed horrific crimes and they deserve the death penalty.

"I don't think you have 2 senators up here who disagree with that," he said.

Coash said he has talked to surviving family members who favor the death penalty and surviving family members who oppose it. He said families on each side are being denied justice by a system in which 2 decades go by and the state remains unable to carry out an execution.

Source: Grand Island Independent, May 24, 2016

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