The new NET News documentary "...until he is dead" explores the history of capital punishment in Nebraska. Research for the program revealed fascinating details about how the state selected and implimented the equipment and process used for executions.
The room set aside for lethal injection executions at the state penitentiary in Lincoln is bright, sparse and spotless as a doctor’s office. The type of table you might envision in an operating room is equipped with thick leather cuffs. There’s a large window through which official witnesses would watch the progress of the execution.
The facility was shown to members of the news media in the summer of 2010. It still had not been used as of early 2013.
That room stands in sharp contrast to the site of the state’s first executions at the prison completed one hundred years earlier.
A reporter examines Nebraska's lethal injection chamber during a media open house. (Photo: Bill Kelly)
"Its bare walls were gloomy in the extreme,” wrote a reporter for the Nebraska State Journal in 1908, “made more so by the dark lines of the gallows."
The space used for state sanctioned executions are just one of the many differences in the manner and methods used to carry out the death penalty in Nebraska. Long forgotten recollections of more than a century of capital punishment in the state were assembled as part of the research for an NET News documentary, “…until he is dead. A history of Nebraska’s death penalty.”
Nebraska law has always had a place for the death penalty. Attempts to ban or limit capital punishment in the state’s first constitution failed, as has every attempt to end it since. But the authors of Nebraska’s constitution also repeated a phrase in the U.S. Constitution banning the use of “cruel and unusual punishment.” It was an attempt to prevent the torture of prisoners and the use of unwarranted cruelty when an execution was performed. A century later that phrase would come in for death penalty opponents hoping to end the use of the electric chair. More on that later.
The first hangings in the state were raucous and unruly spectacles. In the 1800s executions were carried out, as permitted in state law, in public. The idea was to set an example for the community, as had been the routine for centuries in European countries.
These were also very much community affairs, according to Jerry Soucie, an attorney who has represented death row inmates.
“Executions (were) conducted in the local county and under the supervision of the local sheriff,” Soucie explained, “and there were some incidences where they got really botched.”
One notorious case played out in front of famed pioneer photographer Solomon Butcher, who wrote about it in his journal of the early history of Custer County, Nebraska.
Butcher set up his camera at the hanging of Albert Haunstine in May of 1891. The photo shows a huge crowd assembled in Broken Bow on the courthouse lawn. Spectators lean out of the courtroom windows. Families in carriages and cowboys on horseback are on the edge of the curious mob. Their attention is focused on a wooden gallows, with a group of men waiting to hang the murderer Haunstine.
The image fascinates Jim Potter, who studies the Wild West for the Nebraska State Historical Society.
“A certain amount of just plain voyeurism is involved,” Potter speculated.
Coverage of Milton Smith's execution by the Red Cloud Chief hints at the public attitudes towards public hangings in the late 1800's in Nebraska. (Source: Library of Congress)
“I’ve always been amazed at how many accounts talk about young children being brought by their parents. Maybe the parents thought this was an object lesson. See what happens to people when they do bad things.”
State law required an enclosure be built around a gallows to keep the hanging private, but the gallows in the photograph is clearly visible. Newspaper accounts of that day reported a mob of men pushed past the sheriff and tore down the fence.
“Usually what happened, the sheriff would mount the gallows and say, ‘you have broken the law, which makes me very sad; however, there’s nothing to be done about it now,’” Potter said. Witnesses to a number of locally conducted hangings in Nebraska wrote of nearly identical events over the years.
It was in violation of state law, but as Potter explains “the crowd got what they wanted.”
The citizens at the Haunstine’s execution were horrified by what happened next.
With the rope around the doomed man’s neck, the Custer County sheriff released the trap door. Haunstine fell but “the rope broke and he landed on his feet still alive,” Potter said. “So they hauled him back up, tied the rope together and had to hang him basically twice before they got the job done.”
Attorney Alan Peterson read accounts of early executions while lobbying against the death penalty in courtrooms and before state legislators. “Hangings unfortunately were something of a circus event or a community celebration,” Peterson said.
By the end of the 1800’s he sees evidence in newspaper editorials and public records that enthusiasm for public executions started to fade.
“I think it was understood it was a problem,” Peterson said. “The public expressions of glee or joy at the death of another human being were thought a bit undignified and perhaps beneath what we hope to have as the basic souls we all have.”
There was notable opposition to the death penalty, but no serious efforts to repeal it, however, after county sheriffs had carried out 14 hangings, it was decided in the state legislature state officials would handle all the hangings.
“The state decided we can’t let the counties do this anymore because many of them don’t have the resources,” Potter said, “so we’ll just do it behind the walls of the state penitentiary where we can be sure to keep the gawking public away.”
The first man executed behind the prison’s walls was Gottlieb Niegenfind. A jury in Pierce County sentenced him to die after he shot to death his ex-wife and her father.
Since the state did not have a gallows and money was too tight at the time to build a new structure, a previously used wooden gallows was purchased for fifty dollars from Douglas County.
Remarkably, it was an electric, push-button contraption, designed and built by a police detective. At the moment of the execution, four or five men pressed buttons. Only one was wired to release the trap door. No one knew who controlled the fatal switch.
Gone were the rowdy mobs common at the county hangings. Win Barber, the public information officer for the state penitentiary, noted executions in Nebraska were not to be done in secret, once they moved to a more private setting.
“I think there was a sense even at that early time that this was a very serious procedure or a solemn procedure and we did not want to turn it into a public event even in those early days,” Barber said.
The state always allowed witnesses, including newspaper reporters, to attend.
“Given the nature of what was happening, it was important to have independent observers of the process who were not employees. Impartial observers then would basically say these are our views. These are our observations.”
Throughout Nebraska’s history a lively debate continued over the effectiveness and the morality of the death penalty. In 1913, the same year the state legislature considered ending capital punishment, a second bill proposed to “modernize” the method of execution, in the words of Alan Peterson, “modernize to the wonderful electric chair, that new invention.”
The new technology, developed by the State of New York 20 years earlier, won over the legislature. It took Nebraska another seven years before it even got around to building an electric chair.
When the first execution was finally scheduled, the penitentiary brought in an expert, John Hurlburt, New York’s official executioner, to oversee the process. He didn’t stay long. Outraged opponents of capital punishment threatened to lynch him and ran him out of town.
Later state law changed and the identity of the execution team was kept secret.
"This is a very delicate situation. This is a very important and solemn process. We want to shield them from any possible adverse consequences,” Barber said, so they “wouldn’t get phone calls from cranks or (their) kids in school wouldn’t be questioned about what their mother or father was doing.”
The first execution in the chair occurred in 1920, when it took two lives within 30 minutes. Alson Cole and Allen Vincent Grammer were convicted of the same murder in Howard County. Grammer hired Cole to kill his mother-in-law and get her inheritance.
A reporter for the Nebraska State Journal was among the witnesses and published his account on the newspaper's front page the next day:
Allen Vincent Grammer was executed at the state penitentiary at 3:24 PM and Alson Cole at 3:37 PM, "Monday. Both men went to the chair "without a quiver." Cole sat in the chair smiling while death stared him in the face during the time that it took to strap him in and make the connections. Executioner Currier stated after the work was done that it was a perfect job. Only one small hitch occurred and that was when Cole was given a second shot of electricity before the physician pronounced him dead."
The same big oak chair was used for all 15 of the state’s deaths by electrocution.
Some of them were obscure and barely covered in the newspapers. Others, like famed spree-killer Charlie Starkweather in 1959 attracted national attention.
Nebraska became the last state in America to rely solely on the electric chair for its capital cases. The last time it was used was in 1997 to execute Robert Williams, a Lincoln resident charged with murdering three women and nearly killing a fourth.
In 2009 the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled electrocution was a cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the state’s constitution.
The court wrote in the case of Mata v. Nebraska:
“We recognize the temptation to make the prisoner suffer, just as the prisoner made an innocent victim suffer. But it is the hallmark of a civilized society that we punish cruelty without practicing it. Condemned prisoners must not be tortured to death, regardless of their crimes. The evidence shows that electrocution inflicts intense pain and agonizing suffering. Therefore, electrocution as a method of execution is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Nebraska Constitution.”
There was a time during the 1970s when Nebraska’s electric chair was put in storage while legal arguments over the future of the death penalty were resolved. This time the Department of Corrections dismantled the wooden chair and the power equipment and put the pieces in storage.
“We’ve had requests from some museums in Washington, D.C. and in this state to have the electric chair on display and those have been denied,” Barber said. “We just don’t feel it’s an appropriate thing to put on display.”
In its place Corrections built the lethal injection chamber, which has remained unused while legal challenges filed by death row inmates make their way through the courts.