Legislature debates death penalty repeal; votes to break filibuster seem unlikely

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May 13, 2013 - 5:40pm

The Nebraska Legislature held a somber debate on repealing the state’s death penalty Monday, with repeal supporters showing they may have a majority, but not enough to overcome a filibuster.

Thirty four years ago, Nebraska legislators voted to repeal the death penalty, although they didn’t have enough votes to override a veto by the governor. Repeal supporters say this year may be the strongest they’ve been since then.

Repealers have been emphasizing practical considerations: the cost to the taxpayers of appeals, challenges to the state’s lethal injection protocol, and the fact the state has executed only three prisoners convicted of first degree murder since 1959. Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash reflected those arguments.

"Without repeal we’re going to continue to spend money. We’re going to continue to talk about perpetrators. This bill is about giving justice. This is about justice to the victims’ families. Let the perpetrators of this crime walk a little track in their five by ten cell until they die. And let’s speak no more of them," Coash said.

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion, a death penalty supporter, said opponents were trying to have it both ways. "Those very same people have put every roadblock up to stop us from executing people. They’ve challenged the way we execute people. And now that we’ve got a way, the chemicals that we use, they’re challenging those. They’ve taken every appeal they can take," Kintner said. "They’ve driven up the cost of the death penalty and then they say it’s too expensive."

Some senators said their positions on the death penalty have changed. Sen. Galen Hadley remembered being in school with mass murderer Charles Starkweather in the 1950s. "I can remember going to the prison the night he was executed. (I was) very pro-death penalty. And I’ve been pro-death penalty pretty much all of my life. But I’ve come to the conclusion I don’t think it works," he said.

Sen. Russ Karpicek of Wilber said his views have not changed. "We hear a lot of people says they were for the death penalty, but after they thought about it and different things, they’ve come against it. I haven’t. I’ve come back still on the side of the death penalty," he said. "My reasoning is not an eye for an eye, any of those things. Is it a deterrent? I don’t know if it is or not. I think that not having it would be less of a deterrent, obviously."

Sen. John Murante of Gretna said he could see both sides of the argument, but there is no question the death penalty is applied disproportionately to minorities. "I have not been convinced that the death penalty does deter crime, but I’m also not completely convinced I can say with authority that it does not," he said. "But I think in light of the situation the onus is on proponents of the death penalty to convince me that it does deter crime. And I’m not there at this point."

Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff cited the horrific details of Raymond Mata’s murder of 3-year-old Adam Gomez in support of keeping the death penalty. "Raymond Mata allowed his dog to chew on the skull of Adam. He took parts of the body, he fed it to the dog. He peeled off the flesh of the skull. He placed duct tapes over the eyes, placed the skull above the bed in the attic of his home," Harms said. He challenged his fellow senators to tell him they could go home and tell Gomez’s famiy they had "taken care" of Mata by giving him life in prison.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who introduced the repeal bill, argued against basing decisions on accounts of terrible crimes. "Some who oppose the bill may wave the bloody shirt and try to play on your emotions about the horrendous crimes that have been committed by people on Death Row," he said. Chambers cited a case in which a woman was beaten, placed alive under a vehicle, set on fire, had a breast and a leg amputated, but her murder did not wind up on death row.

After about five hours of debate, senators took what was considered a test vote on a motion to bracket, or kill the bill. The motion was defeated, with 26 voting against it, and 18 voting for it. While that was a temporary victory for those who want to repeal the death penalty, it suggested the odds are still against them this year.

It would take 30 votes to override a veto that Gov. Dave Heineman is widely expected to issue if the bill passes. More immediately, repeal opponents have said they’re willing to try and talk the bill to death in a filibuster. It would take 33 votes to overcome that and reach a vote on the bill itself. That prospect seemed dim as debate continued late Monday afternoon.

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