Is the Death Penalty Moral? Advocates, opponents and students wrestle with the question

"Classroom Conversations" discussion at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
September 11, 2016 - 3:29pm

Can a person's actions be so heinous to justify ending their life? For more than 100 years state law said yes: in such a case the courts had the power to bring on the death of another human being.

On Nov. 8 the question will be put to Nebraska voters once and for all.

Nebraska’s choice on whether to retain use of the death penalty may be complex, but our NET News project to promote a lively discussion was simple. At three of the state’s community college we offered students the chance to ask tough questions of the people advocating each side of the referendum on the ballot in November.

"Classroom Conversations" premieres Monday, Sept. 12 at 9 p.m. CT on NET. Visit the project web site to watch the full show, watch additional video segments, and get information about additional broadcast days and times.

"Classroom Conversations" discussion at Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff (courtesy photo)

"Classroom Conversations" discussion at Northeast Community College in Norfolk (photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)

The program “Classroom Conversations: Nebraska’s Death Penalty Vote” will be shown repeatedly prior to the Nov. 8 election.

Some of the most pointed exchanges occurred when the students, from a variety of backgrounds, questioned the morality, ethics, and foundations of religious belief that support or challenge the use of capital punishment.

Two of the men on death row were convicted in Scotts Bluff County. Raymond Mata killed 3-year-old Adam Gomez in a manner too hideous to detail. In 2003, Jeffrey Hessler raped and murdered Heather Geurrero, a 15-year-old newspaper carrier from Gering.

The murders still resonate across the state’s panhandle and they prompted Western Nebraska Community College student to challenge how death penalty opponents can should address family members of the victims.

“The crimes that they committed to the children were horrible,” Kayla Roberts said. “Being the mother of two, if somebody did that to my children, I would hope that they would get what was coming to them.”

She ended with a question directed at Stacy Anderson, representing the group hoping to end the use of the death penalty, Retain a Just Nebraska.

How would you describe to a mother that life in prison is morally justifiable?” asked Roberts.

“I would never tell a mother how to feel about the death penalty,” Anderson replied. “If their child was murdered, they get to feel whatever they want about the death penalty.”

Anderson noted she lived in the Scottsbluff area and had been deeply affected by both the homicides. She pointed out that some survivors are unable to find comfort because the State of Nebraska” so rarely seek the death penalty” and has been stymied in its attempts to successfully execute those have been convicted and sentenced to death.

“There are so few cases where the death penalty is sought, that essentially we’re telling some mothers, ‘your child’s murder was heinous’ and to another mother, who is grieving just as badly, ‘your child’s murder was just common.’

Speaking to the same class in Scottsbluff, Bob Evnen, co-founder of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, stated “these arguments about, ‘we don’t do it that often,” can just as easily be used in service of the argument that we ought to do it more often.”

Evnen said he sometimes wonders, when answering critics who point out the low number of state-sanctioned deaths, “if we had three hangings every Saturday, would that be a satisfactory rate, in order to take this argument away?”

“I’m not unhappy with the fact that we’re very careful about when and how we impose it,” Evnen said. “I don’t think that undermines the deterrence argument, based upon the studies that I’ve seen.”

The topic of whether the death penalty is useful for the families left behind after a murder was arose again in north Omaha at Metropolitan Community College.

Student Akia Outerbridge took a different tack, exploring the best way for devastated families to look at capital punishment.

Outerbridge wondered if “when you put somebody on death row and they (are executed) do you think that gives the family closure?”

“I don’t think it’s the same for every person.,” replied former State Attorney General Don Stenberg during the Omaha forum. Stenberg found that while “there are some families opposed the death penalty and don't want to see it carried out” he also saw other cases when relatives believed the only justice is in taking the life of the killer.

Stenberg oversaw the three last executions of death row inmates in Nebraska during the 1990s.

“The one I remember most was the Willie Otey case and his victim was a young lady named Jane McManus,” Stenberg told the group.

When she was murdered in her home in 1977, evidence presented at trial showed McManus had been sexually assaulted, stabbed, strangled and beaten with a hammer.

Stenberg recalled he had several meetings with Laura McManus, Jane’s sister where he “got to know her very well because she wanted justice.”

Otey asked for a change of sentence before a hearing at the state’s Pardon Board, where Stenberg was one of three members who heard Laura McManus’ testimony “in support of her sister,” asking the death sentence to maintained.

When it came to closure for Laura McManus, Stenberg said “I know that she was very glad to see justice done.”

Also reflecting on the idea of closure was retiring Nebraska State Senator Colby Coash, who reversed his support for capital punishment in recent years. He now feels the system provides true justice to none of those left behind after a capital crime.

Responding to Overbridge, Colby asked “your question is will we they get closure? Here's my answer,” he continued. “We'll never know because (an execution) will never happen.”

“They’ll never know if they'll get closure because their families’ killer isn’t going to be executed,” Coash said, referring to the legal delays and inability of the state to find a legal supply of the drugs needed to carry out an execution using lethal injection.

“We have victims' families out there who want to move on with their life. They don't get closure either,” Coash told the group. “Every so often they know there's an appeal and it hits the newspaper and they get what they tell me it’s like reopening a wound.”

“I wish we had a system that gave both of those family’s closure but we don't. We don't.”

Several of the "Classroom Conversations" participants in Norfolk recall the 2002 bank robbery that put three men on death row. They killed five people and left scars in the community that shaped the discussion at Northeast Community College.  

It’s what student Nichole Sullivan had on her mind when she addressed Evnen and Dan Parsons, the representative of Retain a Just Nebraska appearing before her class.

“First I want to make a comment that I was in school eight blocks away from the bank shooting,” Sullivan said.  “The house across the street where they broke in and stole the vehicle was across the road from my house.”

Then she asked: “It says in the Bible an eye for an eye, what is your opinion on that?”

Parsons said many Nebraskans raised in religious household respect on of the most basic tenants of the world’s religions: to kill is wrong.

“I think you've seen an evolution of opinions from faith leaders. I happen to come from a more Evangelical or non-denominational background. People in my faith communities are beginning to change their opinion on the death penalty. I happen to be pro-life. I think a lot of people who are pro-life have struggled with this idea that how can I be for life in one instance but against life in another instance?

Parsons noted “the Catholic church is against the death penalty (and) you rarely see Catholic bishops take a strong stand on a moral issue like this other than maybe abortion.”

Evnen disagreed with Parsons assessment. “I don't think that the Catholic church is opposed to the death penalty.”

Evnen noted what while he, like Parsons, is not Catholic either, he has read of archbishops declaring the death penalty is “fundamental to the observance of the sixth commandment, which is thou shalt not murder.”

He went on to argue that the Bible “pretty clearly allows for the death penalty in certain instances.”

“I don't think that's disputable. It seems to me that there's a strong Biblical impetus for the death penalty,” Evnen said. “There are moral, Biblical underpinnings to what we're doing here and they find expression in the statutes of our state.”

The pair also spoke directly to those trying to find a balance between pro-life camps.

Parsons noted he and others he knows “struggle with this idea of death there is this conflict between the death penalty and abortion.”

“How do we justify the state taking the life of someone who admits guilt, “Parsons asked “but spend all this effort to try to protect an innocent life that's not born.”

“I feel much better having landed now for life for both of those individuals.”

Evnen replied that he didn’t see how Parsons could “compare the innocence of a baby in the womb with a craven, heinous, calculated killer. These are not the same case to me.”

“I don't have trouble making the distinction between those two,” Evnen concluded. “I think if you really are respectful of life then you will come to the conclusion that the death penalty is an important thing for law enforcement to have.”

The discussions at the three community colleges covered a variety of issues from the cost of the death penalty to concerns about bias in who is given a death sentence versus life imprisonment. There is more information about “Classroom Conversations: Nebraska’s Death Penalty Vote” can be found on the project web page.



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