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In the Bible Belt, Christmas Isn’t Coming to Death Row

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When it comes to the death penalty, guilt or innocence shouldn’t really matter to Christians.  

NASHVILLE — Until August, Tennessee had not put a prisoner to death in nearly a decade. Last Thursday, it performed its third execution in four months.
This was not a surprising turn of events. In each case, recourse to the courts had been exhausted. In each case Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, declined to intervene, though there were many reasons to justify intervening. Billy Ray Irick suffered from psychotic breaks that raised profound doubts about his ability to distinguish right from wrong. Edmund Zagorksi’s behavior in prison was so exemplary that even the warden pleaded for his life. David Earl Miller also suffered from mental illness and was a survivor of child abuse so horrific that he tried to kill himself when he was 6 years old.
Questions about the humanity of Tennessee’s lethal-injection protocol were so pervasive following the execution of Mr. Irick that both Mr. Zagorski and M…

Past executions in Nebraska brought demonstrations, and sober reality

Nebraska's death chamber
A collage of photographs on the wall of Ben Nelson's home office shows him somber and stressed.

They were taken on the night of Sept. 2, 1994, as Nelson was waiting, as Nebraska's governor, to receive word that condemned killer Harold Lamont "Walkin' Wili" Otey had been executed.

"It was weighing heavily on me," said Nelson, a death penalty supporter. "It was no longer academic or political - it was real."

Nebraska's last executions came under Nelson's watch in the 1990s. For him and others, the memories of those sobering events are coming back as the state prepares to resume enforcing the death penalty.

Carey Dean Moore, convicted of killing 2 Omaha cabdrivers, Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland, 39 years ago, is scheduled to be executed on the morning of Aug. 14.

Barring a last-minute stay, it will be the state's 1st execution since 1997, and the 1st using lethal injection to carry out the state's ultimate penalty.

2 decades ago, when Nelson was governor, the state executed three convicted murderers: Otey, John Joubert in 1996 and Robert Williams in 1997.

Then, like now, the executions marked the resumption of capital punishment after a lengthy pause. Prior to Otey, Nebraska had not used the electric chair since 1959, when mass murderer Charlie Starkweather was executed.

Officials, prison employees and execution witnesses used words like "somber" and "solemn," "barbaric" and "God's will" to describe their experiences with the 3 executions.

The midnight execution of Otey, who attacked and murdered an Omaha woman in her Elmwood Park home, brought a loud, raucous and sometimes angry crowd of about 1,000 to the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

Some death penalty supporters carried signs or wore T-shirts reading "Fry Wili," "3 Jolts and You're Out" and "Nebraska State Pen 1st Annual BBQ." Capital punishment foes mostly prayed, lit candles and wept. One death penalty opponent burned an American flag; another reached across the snow fence dividing the 2 groups of demonstrators, grabbed a sign with a swastika on it, and tore it up.

Supporters, some fueled by alcohol, sang, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," when Otey's death was announced at 12:33 a.m.

The conduct, labeled inappropriate by some state officials including Nelson, later prompted Nebraska to switch to mid-morning executions, when most people were at work and the bars weren't closing. Moore also is scheduled to be executed during the day, at 10 a.m.

Perhaps the most directly involved are the prison staffers who will carry out the upcoming execution.

An execution team, selected to accompany the condemned to the execution chamber and strap the person to the execution table, was selected weeks ago and has conducted several drills to ensure the execution is carried out in a professional, and dispassionate, way.

Larry Wayne, a former deputy state corrections director, said that in the 1980s and 1990s, those with fervent pro- or anti-death penalty convictions were usually not asked to participate. The task required personnel who could set aside any personal beliefs and carry out the law. Anyone who had reservations was allowed to opt out, he added.

"It's not an easy thing to take a life," Wayne said. "You don't take it lightly."

Brad Stephens, then a reporter and anchor at Omaha television station KETV, said he consulted an associate pastor at his Methodist church before serving as a witness at Williams' execution. He was morally torn: He supported capital punishment while his religion did not.

In the end, after researching the 3 violent slayings committed by Williams, Stephens, now a TV anchor in Kansas City, said he was able to nervously watch as the death warrant was read to Williams and 3 jolts of electricity rendered him lifeless.

"I thought, 'What if this guy did this to someone I loved? What would I want to happen?'" he said. "As a human being, I believe in my soul that if you take another person's life in a heinous fashion, you deserve to die."

The World-Herald reached out to several officials and others involved in the 3 executions in the 1990s. Several declined to talk about it, choosing not to relive the difficult and stressful events. That included former Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg, a leading proponent of capital punishment who was relentless in seeking the executions, and Harold Clarke, then Nebraska's corrections director, whose job it was to impose the death penalty.

Some prison workers personally involved were reluctant to talk about their experience. They get to know the inmates, who often spend years behind bars, as people, not just as criminals who have committed horrific crimes, Wayne said.

Recently, 14 former prison administrators, many with firsthand experience in carrying out the death penalty, asked to intervene in a U.S. Supreme Court appeal by a death-row inmate in Missouri. They cited the emotional toll it takes on prison workers involved in the "face-to-face" duty as another reason to end capital punishment.

"Such executions do not serve the state's interests in finality or justice," their legal brief read. "Instead they make public servants parties to barbarism."

Brian Gage, a former Nebraska prison warden and Iraq veteran, compared the anxiety of participating in an execution to the post-traumatic stress experienced in military combat.

"Whatever they feel about the death penalty, they're kind of torn. Why is this person being put to death instead of someone else?" said Gage, who is now a community college instructor. "You try to separate yourself from it, 'Hey, you're not the one who made this decision.'"

Wayne said that despite his personal opposition to capital punishment, he agreed to serve on an execution team - an execution that was called off in 1984. (Richard Holtan left death row in 1989 after being resentenced to life in prison for murdering an Omaha bartender in 1974.)

In corrections and law enforcement, Wayne said, your job is to carry out the law.

"Spiritually, as a Christian, I just don't believe in capital punishment - even Carey Dean Moore," Wayne said. "He was brought into the world as part of God's plan. When he goes out, it ought to be God's doing, not man's."

Not all agree. Jan Rowe's mother-in-law, Virginia Rowe, a Sioux Rapids, Iowa, farm wife, was 1 of 3 women brutally slain by Robert Williams. Jan Rowe said she had no reservations about accompanying Virginia's husband, Wayne, to the 1997 execution.

Jan Rowe, who helped found a Christian school near her home in Freeport, Illinois, said that Wayne Rowe expressed relief after the execution, that a long series of appeals and stays in the execution was finally over.

She said the slaying changed the happy-go-lucky personality of her husband, Tom, and that her children and grandchildren never got a chance to know Virginia Rowe. The date of her murder, Aug. 12, is remembered by family members every year.

"It victimized all of us," Rowe said of the slaying.

As for the execution, "It was part of God's will," she said.

Eugene Curtin, a longtime editor and reporter for the Bellevue Leader, witnessed the execution of Joubert, an Offutt airman who abducted and murdered 2 boys, ages 12 and 13, from that Sarpy County community. The process was clinical, professional and just, he said, and hasn't left him with nightmares.

"He committed some horrendous crimes. Our society decided they were so heinous that he forfeited his right to be among us. I have no trouble with that," Curtin said.

State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, the state's leading opponent of the death penalty, accompanied both Joubert and Williams to the electric chair. He said his experience steeled his resolve to end capital punishment.

"It had a bad effect on everybody who was even tangentially involved," Chambers said. Those guarding Joubert were "fidgety" and "very nervous," and Joubert was strapped so tightly to the electric chair that his hands turned blue. Williams, meanwhile, was nicked while being shaved in preparation for his electrocution, prompting the need for first aid, which Williams found ironic, according to the senator.

"They took a man who had killed and multiplied that by however many were participating in the official state killing," Chambers said. "So multiple killers were there that day. And it was so pointless."

For Nelson, dealing with the death penalty cases was one of his most serious and tough tasks as governor. As a member of the State Pardons Board, he said he had to look Otey's mother in the eyes and reject her son's appeal for clemency.

"It was my responsibility to do what the law required," he said. "There were some people who didn't accept that."

In the 3 executions in the 1990s, there was no doubt of guilt. Williams, he said, even wrote Nelson a letter, saying that he was "at peace" with his sentence, had found God and didn't blame Nelson.

"That made it harder in some respects," the former governor and U.S. senator said. "But it was some comfort to know that this person didn't think you were doing the wrong thing."

Nelson said he talks with the current governor, Pete Ricketts, from time to time, but the topic of executions has not come up.

"As it gets closer, it will get more real for an awful lot of people," Nelson said.

Source: Scottsbluff Star Herald, August 8, 2018


Nebraska Supreme Court denies lawyer's motion to leave death penalty case


Nebraska's highest court has denied an attorney's request to withdraw from a case involving a death-row inmate who isn't fighting the state's efforts to execute him.

The Nebraska Supreme Court issued the ruling Tuesday after defense attorney Jeff Pickens argued that his duty to provide competent legal representation conflicts with his obligation to follow the wishes of his client, Carey Dean Moore.

Pickens says he could make multiple legal arguments to prevent the scheduled Aug. 14 execution, but Moore has ordered him not to file anything. 

Moore was sentenced to death for the 1979 fatal shootings of 2 Omaha cab drivers.

Replacing Pickens with another attorney likely would have delayed the execution. 

A key drug in Nebraska's lethal injection supply, potassium chloride, expires Aug. 31.

Source: Associated Press, August 8, 2018


State officials released guidelines for the scheduled execution of Carey Dean Moore's on Aug. 14.


Gathering signatures against the Nebraska repeal of the death penalty
According to the death warrant, the execution may occur from 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., but unless there is a stay or legal action preventing the execution from proceeding, it will occur around 10 a.m.

Moore was sentenced to death for the 1979 murders of 2 Omaha cab drivers, Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland. He has been on death row longer than anyone else in Nebraska. This would mark the state's 1st execution since 1997.

Public parking isn't permitted on penitentiary grounds or at Cornhusker State Industries. Members of the public will be allowed on penitentiary grounds no earlier than 8 a.m. and should only cross at the following locations, which will be staffed by Lincoln police officers:
  • South 14th Street
  • Pioneers and South 8th Street
  • Pioneers and Highway 2
Entry to penitentiary grounds is only available on foot at South 14th Street. All people entering penitentiary grounds are subject to person and vehicle search.

Upon admission, members of the public must identify as a proponent or opponent in order to be directed to the appropriate public area.

The following rules must be observed:
  • Remain within assigned areas as directed by law enforcement.
  • No weapons of any kind are permitted on the grounds.
  • No backpacks, gym bags or other bags are permitted on penitentiary grounds.
  • No coolers or chairs are permitted on penitentiary grounds.
  • Only handheld signs will be permitted. No signs will be allowed that are mounted on poles, sticks or other objects. No exceptions.
  • Do not cross barriers.
  • Do not approach the security fence.
  • Do not film the facility or inmates through the fence.
  • Do not film the front entrance corridor.
Failure to adhere to the guidelines or non-compliance with instructions from law enforcement officers and/or Nebraska State Penitentiary staff will be cause for removal from the premises.

Source: KETV news, August 8, 2018


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

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