Impassioned Nebraskans share final thoughts on death penalty ballot question

Secretary of State Gale presides at Kearney hearing. (Photo byBill Kelly, NET News)
Public hearing on the death penalty ballot initiative held in Omaha. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)
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November 2, 2016 - 6:45am

The range of testimony from Nebraskans was striking. Impassioned and practical. Spiritual, academic, and sometimes deeply personal.


Citizens wait to testify at the public hearing in Lincoln. (Photos: Bill Kelly, NET News)

NET's "Classroom Conversations: Nebraska's Death Penalty Vote" program and project explores many aspects of the issue. 

On three nights in October, Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale heard from government leaders, issue advocates and a cross section of citizens with something to say about the upcoming ballot initiative on the death penalty. The sessions, required by law for any ballot initiative, were held in each of the state’s three congressional districts.

The measure on the ballot asks voters whether they want to repeal or maintain the law passed by the Legislature in 2015 that ended use of the death penalty after over 100 years.

Below are selected excerpts with a range of issues raised by those sharing their support or opposition to capital punishment.

The Law Enforcement Officers

Rick Eberhardt, Sheriff, Pierce Co., Nebraska

If the death penalty is taken away, there will be no crime in this state, no matter how many killed, how young they are, how horrible the circumstances, that will warrant the death penalty. I believe that if you’re dropping your kids off at school, standing in line at a bank, answering a call to a domestic dispute, or walking the yard at the state penitentiary, you have the right to believe the state of Nebraska has your back. If someone commits a very heinous crime, justice will be served. Not vengeance, just justice.

Joe Jeanette, Detective, Bellevue, Nebraska Police Department, Retired

My son has been a police officer, or is currently a police officer for the past twelve years. He has also worked homicides and other violent crimes. He has three children. If I felt that not having a death penalty would in any way put him in peril, or leave my grandchildren fatherless, I would not be providing comments here today.

Sen. Galen Hadley

Attorney General Doug Peterson



The Elected Officials  

Sen. Galen Hadley, Speaker of the Legislature

The elimination of the death penalty was the most difficult decision in my eight years in the Nebraska Legislature. I voted on the floor on over a thousand bills in my eight years in the Legislature, and by far and away, this was the most difficult vote. There were a lot of tears on the floor with this particular vote.

Here in Nebraska, we have life imprisonment. The attorney general of our state has said that when someone is sentenced to life, they are not eligible for parole. We can be confident that for the worst offenders, we can keep them separate from society forever with life imprisonment.

Attorney General Doug Peterson

The Department (of Correctional Services’) current drug protocol (regulating the process of lethal injection) involves the use of drugs that have been historically difficult to obtain, but this does not mean that the regulation cannot be changed. The same has been done in other states, and there are other states that we can model with regards to the appropriate drug protocol.

Currently, we have a three-drug protocol that can be changed to a single-drug protocol, and those other states do have models which have been tested up to the U.S. Supreme Court, so we feel that we do have the ability to develop protocols that are consistent with Supreme Court rulings.

The Citizens

Kurt Borchard, Kearney, Nebraska

I believe the death penalty is barbaric. Enacting the death penalty puts the U.S. in league with countries that have abysmal human rights records; these include China and Iran. One hundred and forty countries have now abolished the practice. The death penalty, as a penalty, assumes that death is a greater punishment than imprisonment for life. No one in this room can know if that is true. I do not want the state where I live deciding who can live and who might die. I do not want blood on my hands, or people’s lives being taken in my name.

Robert Klotz, Lincoln, Nebraska

All the questions and problems, such as the high costs associated with bringing a murderer to justice, the number of appeals, and the problem with the innocent mistakenly being convicted, are all questions the Unicameral chose not to resolve over the last several decades. And they still need resolving. However, do not be fooled into thinking that the failures of the Unicameral supersedes one’s right to justice. To eliminate the death penalty is to eliminate justice for the victim.

Bonnie Burgeson, Lincoln, Nebraska

There’s so much language that is used to make the whole process sound legitimate. The language seems to give it legitimacy. Why do we use the word “execute” rather than just “kill?" Nebraska should be ashamed of its bloodthirsty past. The electric chair was deemed “cruel and unusual punishment,” and it was when it was used. We used cruel and unusual punishment.

Byron Hansen, Kearney, Nebraska

I believe it makes practical sense to retain this option, and I emphasize option, as an imposed sentence. The most important things in this world cannot be measured monetarily, and justice has no price tag, and it also has no prescribed pace. To reduce my final rationale to a crude, everyday example, I could say it this way: I would not forever discard a tool from my toolbox simply because it is seldom used, or because it is expensive. We keep tools at our disposal for circumstances that are known, but also for those that are unknown or unforeseeable. For these reasons, I intend to vote to preserve the option to impose the death penalty, and the repeal of Legislative Bill 268.

For “Classroom Conversations: Nebraska’s Death Penalty Vote,” NET News brought 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 30-minute television program and additional web content you can find on the project web site.

Megan Jackson, Lincoln, Nebraska

I believe we have evolved morally and ethically as a country of citizens to not feel the hatred and the anger and the retribution to kill another one of our citizens. I believe we can do better than that. I also believe in a practical sense it is just a matter of time that the (United States) Supreme Court will make the death penalty unconstitutional for all of us.  

Angela Carroll, Lincoln, Nebraska

The human element has decided that the death penalty, in some controlled fashion through the Legislature, was some way of saying, “I believe the death penalty is pro-life.” I believe it is a statement for the individuals who say, “I am so upset with the human element of evil that I want to do something. I want to kill evil; I want to face evil, face-to-face, in the eye, and the only way I can get rid of evil in our society is to kill it and get it out of here.” My opinion on the death penalty is different from a lot of folks; I don’t really care about any of the other things. I just want to say, I think you’re evil, and I want to kill you. I want you out of my society.

The Advocates

Stephan Griffith, Executive Director, Retain a Just Nebraska

When we take a human life, even when it is authorized by the government, we kill a bit of humanity. Sometimes it’s perhaps unavoidable, but not in the case of the death penalty. There is no evidence that capital punishment acts as a deterrent to murder. We don’t need to execute people to punish them, and keep society safe from them. Life imprisonment accomplishes that.

Bob Evnen, Co-founder, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty

There are many studies that show that it does have a deterrent effect. What that means is that the death penalty, not only when it’s carried out, but when it’s imposed as a sentence, that the death penalty saves innocent human lives. It is the opponents of the death penalty who have to answer for putting innocent lives at risk if the death penalty is to be eliminated.

To hear testimony of supporters of the death penalty, CLICK HERE.

To hear testimony of opponents of the death penalty, CLICK HERE.



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