Capital punishment in Nebraska has changed dramatically over the years

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June 8, 2011 - 7:00pm

Thirty-nine people have been executed in Nebraska; that is to say, legally. When paired with illegal lynchings, that number hits at least 100, according to James Potter, senior research historian with the Nebraska State Historical Society.


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Infamous convicted murderer Charles Starkweather is arrested in 1958.

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Citizens protest in favor of the death penalty at Harold "Wili" Ote's execution in 1994.

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Protesters against the death penalty about evenly matched those who supported the death penalty at Harold 'Wili' Otey's execution in 1994.

In fact, Potter says mob violence is one of the reasons executions were removed from county responsibility in 1903. Especially in smaller towns, there wasn't necessarily room to hold executions indoors.

"They had no alternative but to erect the scaffolding of the hanging in the courtyard," he said. "Sometimes they built fences around those, but in many cases the crowds came from miles around on the day of the execution and tore these fences down."

Potter recalled turn-of-the-century lynchings in Omaha and Nebraska City, where frenzied crowds forcibly removed prisoners and killed them after witnessing state-sanctioned executions.

"And I think those two instances maybe more than anything else prompted the legislature to basically remove executions from public view and put them at the penitentiary," he said.

Whether state-ordered or by mob rule, hanging was the method of choice for executions in Nebraska until 1913, when the electric chair was adopted by the legislature.

Albert Prince was the last inmate to be hanged in Nebraska, said Win Barber, administrative assistant to the warden at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

"He received the death penalty after stabbing the penitentiary deputy warden to death in the chapel in 1912."

The electric chair was first used in 1920, and was the state's sole method of execution until the Nebraska Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 2008. Nebraska was the last state to abolish the electric chair as its primary form of execution in favor of lethal injection, the legality of which is being challenged in the Nebraska courts.

Fifteen people in the state were executed by the electric chair, Barber said, which was housed in the basement of the penitentiary. The first were Allison Cole and Allen Grammer, both on December 20, 1920.

"That's the only time in Nebraska that we've had two executions back to back."

The story of the most famous person executed in Nebraska has been the inspiration for a slew of films and books, including "Natural Born Killers."

"Probably the most notable case was Charles Starkweather, who carried out a crime spree in 1958 which got the attention of the world," Barber said. "And I remember when I first came to Nebraska in 1968, people still remembered the emotions and the fear that that engendered, when the word got out something was really going on bad here."

Starkweather was executed almost exactly a year after his sentencing; the shortest time on death row was the four months served by Gottlieb Neigenfind in the early 1900s.

By 1994, that number had jumped to 17 years for Harold "Wili" Otey, the first person executed after Starkweather.

And the most recent prisoner to be scheduled for execution has been on death row for more than 30 years. Carey Dean Moore was convicted in 1979 of the murder of two Omaha cab drivers. He has received six stays of execution since then, including his most recent on May 25th.

"Over the years the legal system has become more complex," Barber said, "and certainly that's one of the reasons."

While Barber said the department acts as though Nebraska Supreme Court-set dates are final, they rarely are.

Two of the most recent changes to the system involve eliminating most public access to the execution chamber, and the transfer of death row prisoners from the state penitentiary to Tecumseh State Correctional Institution after it opened in 2001.

"I think the philosophy of that was that you want to separate the long-term care of inmates on death row from those individuals who have some role in carrying out the execution," Barber said. "That would be the major thing that has changed, other than the method (of execution)."

Carey Dean Moore was to be the first person executed by lethal injection; he appealed the sentence on the grounds that one of the injection ingredients is substandard. The Douglas County attorney's office has filed a motion asking the district court to dismiss Moore's appeal.


Click here for a breakdown of all prisoners who have been on death row in Nebraska since the responsibility was handed over to the state.

Click here for a chart showing all prisoners currently on death row in the state.

Click here for an infographic from the non-profit, nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center on capital punishment in the U.S.

*The original version of this story said that the Unicameral approved the switch from county to state executions; in 1920, however, Nebraska still had a two-house legislature. The Unicameral model was approved by voters in 1934 and implemented in 1937.



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