Bill requiring continuous witnessing of executions advances; student athlete measure headed for debate

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks speaks Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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February 13, 2020 - 5:42pm

State senators and other witnesses could watch an execution without interruption under a bill advancing in the Nebraska Legislature. And a proposal to let athletes profit from the use of their name, image or likeness appears headed for debate.

The proposal on witnessing executions was offered by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks. It would require two state senators to be present, and would allow witnesses to watch continuously until the convicted person is declared dead or the execution is halted. During the 2018 execution of Carey Dean Moore by lethal injection, curtains were drawn for 14 minutes during the process.

Sen. Steve Lathrop said that prevents people from seeing if the process amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. “Perhaps it is as sterile as it sounds like -- it would be not unlike going in for a surgical procedure -- or maybe it isn't. But no one knows that unless you leave the curtain open for people to observe the process and be able to be transparent about it and say, ‘This is what took place during the process. It is or it's not cruel and unusual.’ Maybe the decedent went into convulsions. We don't know that because the curtain was closed,” Lathrop said.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes has said the curtain was closed “out of respect for the witnesses – the family and friends of Mr. Moore as well as the witnesses attending for the victims.”  

But Pansing Brooks said in other states, secrecy has been introduced following public outcry over botched executions.

“The premise appears to be that the problem with botched executions is that people see them or that people know about them. That's not the case. The problem with botched executions is they're botched,” she said.

Pansing Brooks said her proposal is separate from debate over the death penalty itself. But Sen. Ernie Chambers said the two could not be separated.

“This very discussion shows the grotesquerie associated with the state killing somebody. There is no humane way for the state to deliberately extinguish a human life,” Chambers said.

Sen. Mike Moser spoke against the bill.

“I have an issue with requiring two state senators to be present at the execution. If they want to be present, I don't object to that, but it's nothing I'd want to do. And I don't think anything useful would be accomplished by requiring two state senators to be there,” Moser said.

And Moser said the death penalty issue has been decided.

“The discussion of the death penalty has pretty much been resolved for me. The citizens already have spoken and I think there's no point in trying to change the will of the people when they've spoken,” he said.

The Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty in 2015, but voters overturned that in a referendum the following year.

Other lawmakers questioned if senators who did not want to witness an execution should be required to attend. Pansing Brooks said she was open to making it voluntary. Senators then voted 33-7 to give the bill first-round approval.

Meanwhile, a proposal giving college athletes the right to profit from the use of their name, image or likeness appears headed for debate by the full Legislature, after the Business and Labor Committee advanced it. Sen. Megan Hunt, chief sponsor of the bill, said she’s excited by the move. “All student athletes should have the same rights as other students in the student population to earn money from their name, image likeness and their talent and skill,” Hunt said.

Sen. Ben Hansen, a member of the committee, abstained during the vote to advance it. Hansen talked about one of his reservations.

“Are there any conflicts between what a student or an athlete can advertise for, and what goes against university policy?” Hansen asked. “Say a student goes up to Frank’s Guns and holds up an AR-15 and says ‘I support AR-15s, I support Frank’s Guns, we should buy a whole bunch of them,’ or conversely, he goes to Planned Parenthood and advertises for them?”

Hunt said her bill addresses that, up to a point.

“A private college or university under this bill would have the ability to prohibit contracts that were in conflict between the institution and the player. And the bill provides for a cause of civil action in that case,” she said. However, she added, “In the case of a public school, I think that there would be First Amendment problems with that that would likely create a barrier to restricting a public university student’s free speech.”

Hansen also questioned the timing of the proposal, which wouldn’t take effect until 2023.

“We're looking at the trend of what the NCAA is gonna do anyway. And it looks like with the next year or so they're going to make this nationwide law that a student can promote their likeness. So it's like, do you step in now, or do we wait (until) later, and so I see the pros and the cons for both,” he said.

Hunt said senators shouldn’t wait to act.

“This is an opportunity for Nebraska to send a message to students all over the country that this is a place where we believe in the free market. This is a place where we want you to come and invest in our state because we'll be able to invest in you. And it's important for Nebraska to get out in the front of culture issue cultural issues like that,” she said.

Hunt said the bill has 19 cosponsors, and she expects someone will prioritize the measure to ensure it will be debated this year.

Lawmakers are now on a four-day break, and will return to work on Tuesday.




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