Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Nebraska governor reiterates plans to veto bill abolishing death penalty

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has said it before and he will say it again: He plans to veto a bill passed this week that would abolish the state's death penalty.

"The Legislature is out of touch with Nebraskans on their vote to repeal the death penalty," Ricketts, a Republican who took office this year, said in a statement posted to Facebook. "The overwhelming majority of Nebraskans support the death penalty because they understand that it is an important tool for public safety."

The state's attorney general, Doug Peterson, has also criticized the legislature's decision, which he said "weakened [Nebraska's] ability to properly administer appropriate justice."

Ricketts had previously threatened to veto the bill, which lawmakers approved and sent to his desk Wednesday.

However, for Ricketts's veto to be upheld, it appears he will have to change the minds of some Nebraska lawmakers. In the state's unicameral legislature, which has 49 state senators, it takes 30 votes to override a veto from the governor. On Wednesday, there were 32 senators voting in favor of the bill.

"I will continue to work with senators to sustain my veto when I issue it," Ricketts said. He has until next week to officially veto the legislation.

If the bill does become law, Nebraska would be the 19th state to formally abolish the death penalty.

It would also be an outlier among states to act on the issue recently. Several states have repealed the death penalty or announced moratoriums over the last decade, but they have typically been blue states such as Maryland, which was the most recent state to formally abolish the practice.

While a majority of Americans support the death penalty (a number that has been falling for 2 decades), there is a very clear partisan divide on the issue: 3/4 of Republicans are in favor of capital punishment, while a majority of Democrats oppose it.

Nebraska is a reliably red state with a conservative legislature, making it something of an unexpected place to see the death penalty on the precipice of disappearing. Some lawmakers have pushed for a repeal for religious reasons, while others have pointed to wrongful convictions. Still others have pointed to it as an example of a wasteful government program.

"The reality is Nebraska hasn't executed anybody in about 20 years," State Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican who co-sponsored the repeal legislation, said in an interview. "That inability spoke to my feelings about inefficient government. I've said frequently, if any other program was as inefficient and as costly as this has been, we would've gotten rid of it a long time ago."

Nebraska last executed an inmate in 1997. Coash described his own personal evolution on the issue, which he traced back to that last execution, when he was a college student who lived not far from where the execution would be carried out.

"I went down to the state penitentiary where they were having the execution that evening," he said this week. "Out in the parking lot of the penitentiary, there was a party, basically. There was a band, they were cooking, people were tailgating. they had a countdown, like you see at New Year's Eve parties. ... It was a big party. You wouldn't have known you were at an execution."

He also said he saw another group praying on the other side of a security fence.

"After that event, I had some time to reflect on that," he said. "It didn't sit well with me. I didn't like how I felt celebrating the state killing somebody. My views on the death penalty changed pretty significantly after that happened."

There are 11 inmates on the state's death row. Their sentences would all be converted to life imprisonment if the bill goes into effect.

Source: Washington Post, May 22, 2015

Ricketts appeals to public to flip death penalty votes

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts is ramping up pressure on lawmakers to try to keep them from overriding his promised veto of a death penalty repeal bill Friday to contact their state senator and voice their support for capital punishment.

Lawmakers gave the repeal bill final approval on Wednesday with a 32-15 vote. At least 30 votes are needed to override a gubernatorial veto, so Ricketts has to flip at least 3.

Ricketts says he has argued to several lawmakers that the Nebraskans he talks to overwhelmingly support the death penalty, and prosecutors need it to protect public safety.

Ricketts has argued that lawmakers are out of touch with the public. Death penalty opponents are working to ensure that support for the bill holds.

The Omaha Police Officers' Association issued the following statement on the bill Friday:

"We believe that a total repeal is inappropriate. At a minimum the death penalty should be an option when a first responder or elected official is murdered, or the crimes are so heinous that they may warrant the ultimate penalty."

For several years the carrying out of the death penalty was in limbo as elected officials and the courts sorted out the legality of the method and procedures for applying the death penalty. This is no longer the case.

Governor Ricketts recently announced that Nebraska will soon have the drugs necessary for lethal injection.

"This issue is far too important to be decided by 33 Senators, many of whom who were elected while telling their voters they supported the death penalty. Rather, such an important issue should be decided by all the voters of Nebraska in a statewide ballot vote."

Source: KETV news, May 22, 2015

Veto at the ready, Gov. Ricketts chases 3 votes in Legislature on death penalty repeal

Gov. Pete Ricketts must flip at least 3 votes to keep the death penalty in Nebraska.

Based on interviews with several state senators Thursday, the votes are in play, and advocates on both sides of the death penalty debate know it.

A leading repeal organization has activated its volunteer calling bank, and staff members for several senators said they were getting automated calls from death penalty supporters.

And the Hall County Board called an emergency meeting for today to consider a resolution in support of capital punishment, largely to influence the veto-vote decision of their state senator.

But no group carries a greater potential to influence the outcome than the state's top elected official.

"I really make the same argument to everybody: It's an important tool for public safety and public policy," Ricketts said during an interview Thursday.

The governor said he will veto Legislative Bill 268, but he declined to say when. Because the governor must act within 5 days of the bill's passage, the showdown will almost certainly take place next week, in the closing days of the legislative session.

The measure passed Wednesday with a surprisingly strong majority of 32 senators. Repeal supporters must keep at least 30 on their side to override the veto.

Several senators said Thursday that the historic vote prompted dozens of calls and e-mails from both sides of the issue. The governor used newspaper and television interviews and his social media accounts Thursday to encourage pro-death penalty Nebraskans to contact to their senators.

"My concern is that they're in that Capitol so much and listening to lobbyists and not to your average Nebraskan," Ricketts said.

And the governor met Thursday with several Republican senators he viewed as being open to reconsidering their positions.

"He said he hopes I could find it in my heart to support the veto," said Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo. "I told him I've got 4 days to think about it, and I'm trying to be open about it."

The governor also met with Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, who also finds himself being lobbied by the Hall County Board. Gloor voted against the repeal bill on the first 2 rounds of debate but joined supporters on the final round.

3 of the board members signed a letter to call the meeting, and one other indicated her support in an e-mail. Six of the seven board members have indicated that they will attend the emergency meeting, said Hall County Clerk Marla Conley.

Board member Gary Quandt said he will argue for the resolution to show solidarity with prosecutors and law enforcement officers. But he also wants to apply pressure on Gloor.

"I was strongly surprised by what the Legislature did," Quandt said Thursday.

Gloor said Thursday that he ultimately decided to vote for repeal because he became convinced that the legal battle over the state's execution protocol will never end.

"I want someone to answer this question: How are we going to get over the hump and do something we haven't been able to do in almost 2 decades," Gloor said. "What's different?"

One of the governor's messages to senators is that the state recently purchased a fresh supply of lethal injection drugs to replace those that had expired. And 3 current death row inmates are out of appeals, although death penalty opponents argue that new legal challenges will ensue once the state tries to carry out another execution.

In response to passage of the repeal bill, death penalty supporters also created a Facebook page titled: "Whose Side Are You On Senator? Save Capital Punishment Now." The site was dedicated to supporting the governor's veto of LB 268, and it had received 200 "likes" in 5 hours Thursday.

It also displayed draft mailings that were targeting Johnson and two other senators who voted for repeal: Brett Lindstrom of Omaha and Tommy Garrett of Bellevue. The mailings accuse the conservative senators of standing with Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, a longtime death penalty foe, rather than their constituents.

Bud Synhorst, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, said grass-roots party activists were trying to rally voters to contact their senators. But he said the state GOP was not engaged in a robocall campaign, nor was he aware of any other groups responsible for such calls.

Stacy Anderson, director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said her organization was conducting a full grass-roots push by volunteers to generate calls to senators. She said her group was not involved in any automated calling campaigns.

Sen. John Murante of Gretna said he made the difficult decision to vote for repeal after having discussions with his Catholic priest. But he said he always made it clear to repeal supporters he wasn't sure how he would vote if it came to a veto override.

Murante said he's now hearing from more death penalty supporters, and he's listening to their input. Asked if he might support the governor during the override vote, he said, "It's possible."

When Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha campaigned for the Legislature, he said he supported the death penalty for the most heinous killers. But his view changed after listening to the argument that life in prison costs less than trying to carry out an execution.

And he met with a man who spent time on death row in another state for a crime he did not commit. Opposing the death penalty is more consistent with his Christian beliefs, he added.

Wednesday's fatal shooting of an Omaha police officer caused Hilkemann to rethink his vote for repeal. But he hasn't decided for sure how he will vote on the override.

A good lawmaker, Hilkemann said, keeps an open mind.

Source: omaha.com, May 22, 2015

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