Campaigns intensifying for, against the death penalty in Nebraska

Nebraska voters will decide this fall whether Nebraska has the death penalty. (NET News photo)
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August 24, 2016 - 6:45am

This fall voters will decide whether Nebraska has the death penalty. It’s a complex issue with lots for voters to think about. With the election getting closer, both sides are intensifying lobbying for your vote.

It started with a Monday morning news conference. Omaha economist Ernie Goss presented his new study on the annual cost of having the death penalty in Nebraska versus not having it. Goss’ study was commissioned by the anti-death penalty group Retain a Just Nebraska, hosts of the news conference.

COMING SOON: “Classroom Conversations: Nebraska’s Death Penalty Vote"

NET News brought together advocates from each side of the issue to answer questions from students at Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff, Northeast Community College in Norfolk and Metropolitan Community College in Omaha. These lively discussions are the foundation of a new 30-minute television program premiering Monday, Sept. 12 at 9 p.m. CT on NET Television.

Don Stenberg (left) and Colby Coash (right) speak with Metropolitan Community College students for the "Classroom Conversations" program. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


Economist Ernie Goss presents his Retain a Just Nebraska study on the cost of the death penalty in Nebraska. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


Bob Evnen of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty talks to Republicans at the weekly Greater Omaha Pachyderm Luncheon. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)


Additional Content/Information

"...until he is dead: A History of Nebraska's Death Penalty" is NET's Emmy-nominated 2013 documentary on capital punishment in Nebraska. Watch the program and access additional content here.

NET News story "Lawsuit to block death penalty referendum cites Ricketts' role" (Sept. 2015)

NET News story "Death penalty supporters submit signatures for referendum" (Aug. 2015)

NET News story "Legislature overrides Ricketts' veto, abolishes Nebraska's death penalty" (May 2015)

NET News story "Legislature votes to abolish death penalty; veto override vote looms" (May 2015)

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty

Retain a Just Nebraska


“The additional cost for a death penalty case is about $14.6 million, opposed to life without parole,” Goss told reporters. “A lot of folks see it as just the incarceration cost. Not so. It's the appeals process, again taking individuals in cases where there are hearings, you have to have individuals are taken back and forth to the hearing and costs such as that. The pretrial costs, jury selection. Think about jury selection in a death penalty case versus a non-death penalty or life without parole case. The jury selection is more intensive, it takes longer.”

The report quickly came under fire from Nebraskans for the Death Penalty and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, who said in a news release that it “fails to accurately reflect actual costs” of the death penalty in Nebraska. Retain a Just Nebraska defended the report and criticized critics in news releases and another news conference.

It was a flurry of activity that if nothing else signaled the campaign for your vote on this issue is getting serious with Election Day looming.

The death penalty is an issue with a wide range of practical, emotional…even spiritual aspects both sides want you think about.

“Nebraskans simply do not want to have an innocent person executed,” said Darold Bauer, campaign manager for Retain a Just Nebraska. “And through the course of the campaign we believe that as we share information about innocence (and) cost, that Nebraskans, although they might say ‘I support the death penalty,’ when they stop and think about it and when they understand fully that we have life in Nebraska without parole, when they understand that gives them an option. We're not we're not looking to let people out of prison. We're looking to lock them up. We think that as Nebraskans think about the issue and study the issue, that they'll come around to our way of thinking.”

Lincoln State Senator Colby Coash helped lead the Unicameral’s repeal of the death penalty last year. A successful petition drive by death penalty supporters then put the question on the ballot. Coash continues to speak against the death penalty.

“The practical reality of the death penalty in Nebraska is this. We haven't executed anybody in almost 20 years. We haven't used it and there's a reason for that. The reason is we can't,” Coash said, in comments to Metropolitan Community College students in Omaha for NET’s upcoming “Classroom Conversations” project. “The ship has sailed and this is a broken system. I’m choosing my position based on my compassion for the victims that they deserve a system that does what it says it’s going to do.”

Lincoln lawyer Bob Evnen is a co-founder of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, the group that led the petition drive to get the issue on the ballot this year. He began a presentation to a weekly lunch hour gathering of Omaha Republicans with a Bible-based appeal.

“Capital punishment is the only penalty that is repeated in all five of the Books of Moses,” Evnen said. “The Old Testament is composed of three parts. The five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings. The Five Books of Moses, in each of those five books you'll find capital punishment is prescribed for certain crimes. And so we begin with capital punishment is morally required.”

Evnen has talked to groups throughout the summer, and said a variety of pro death penalty selling points are influencing voters.

“I think people are very responsive to the idea that law enforcement overwhelmingly supports the death penalty. That it is something that helps protect them as they go out to protect us, and I think that that rings true for a great number of Nebraskans,” Evnen said. “I think that a substantial majority of Nebraskans support the death penalty. They understand the importance of having the death penalty on the books. They understand that we don't use the death penalty every day, all the time, that it's reserved for the most heinous crimes and the most vicious criminals.”

Former attorney general Don Stenberg is honorary co-chair of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.

“I think there’s a deterring effect for some people in the death penalty,” Stenberg said, also talking with Metropolitan Community College students in Omaha for NET’s “Classroom Conversations” recording. "I think it does help public safety, and I just think there were some cases which are so egregious, where maybe a mass murder of grade school kids or a bomb in a football stadium that kills 50 or 100 people and injures 200 more. At some point I think justice requires that the person that did that horrendous act pay the ultimate price.”

The Nebraskans for the Death Penalty campaign has been seemingly low key compared to its opposition throughout the summer, but Evnen said that will change when they “kick into gear” after Labor Day. Bauer said Retain a Just Nebraska will also continue what he called a “full blown campaign.”

Both sides said they need to sell their side of the issue, but also how to understand possibly confusing ballot language. Here’s one simple way to think about it. If you are against the death penalty, vote “retain” on the ballot. If you are for the death penalty, vote “repeal.”



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