As Nebraska legislators were preparing to debate abolishing the state’s death penalty Monday morning, a case they discussed Friday is providing some ammunition for repeal advocates.
But a leading death penalty supporter is sticking to his guns, and threatening a move that could scuttle chances for repeal.
The case discussed Friday was a relatively small item in an overall state budget that calls for Nebraska to spend $7.8 billion over the next two years. But the $450,000 payment to Darrel Parker provided fodder for death penalty opponents when lawmakers discussed it Friday.
Parker was a Lincoln man wrongly convicted in 1956 of killing his wife the year before, and sentenced to life in prison. Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said Parker initially confessed to the crime after being questioned by a Chicago detective. That detective’s coercive tactics were later criticized by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Miranda case requiring warnings to criminal suspects.
Parker was paroled in 1970, pardoned in 1991 and reached a settlement with Attorney General Jon Bruning’s office last year. Lathrop said Friday Parker’s faulty conviction has lessons for the Legislature today. "Monday morning we’re going to pick up the death penalty. And we’re going to talk about the ultimate punishment. And here we have a claim for a fella who they brought somebody in to interrogate him from Chicago, forced a confession that he killed his own wife and it wasn’t true. Why is that important? Because our system is not perfect enough, in my opinion, to impose death as a form of punishment," Lathrop said.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, sponsor of the repeal effort, cited the case of Jack Marion, executed in Beatrice in 1887 for killing a man who later turned up alive, and other cases of people being exonerated by DNA evidence and taken off death row. "It’s bad enough for the state to kill anybody. But to know that innocent people have been killed is enough to do away with a system where the state does that act which we would take another person’s life for," Chambers said. "We say ‘This criminal killed an innocent person.’ What happens when the state kills an innocent person? Is the state abolished? Is the state overthrown? No. They just say ‘Well I’m sorry, we all make mistakes.’ I can’t dismiss it that casually."
Also Friday, supporters of its repeal released a study of cases in Nebraska, written by attorney Alan Peterson for the ACLU. Among its findings, the study says death penalty cases have an average of almost eight appeals, taking more than 13 years, compared to less than two appeals taking less than 6 years for life sentences.
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, a death penalty supporter, did not find that persuasive. "I don’t know that you can have it both ways," Lautenbaugh said. "There are ample appeals, and some argue too many appeals, but they act as kind of a safety valve, especially in capital cases. I don’t think anyone makes the argument that anyone on Nebraska’s death row is not guilty or has been wrongfully convicted. We just don’t have that here. There have been other people that have been wrongfully convicted -- not on death row in Nebraska."
Chambers vowed to continue the repeal fight. "I have done everything that I could think to do to get rid of the death penalty, to take Nebraska out of the killing business. And I intend to continue doing so. I hope we do it this session," he said.
Lautenbaugh said he doesn’t think Nebraska should, or will, repeal the ultimate punishment. "I do not see any chance of it (repeal) passing. I think it may have more support than it has in the past; I do not see it becoming law," he said.
And Lautenbaugh promised to do what it takes to prevent repeal from happening. "I’ll do what I need to do to resist it. If that includes filibustering the bill, then that’s what’ll happen," he said.
Supporters of repeal have said they think they’re close to having the 25 votes they would need to pass the bill, but are more doubtful about having 30 to override an expected veto by Gov. Dave Heineman. To overcome the filibuster threatened by Lautenbaugh would take 33 votes.
Editor’s Note: You can watch live coverage of the death penalty repeal debate beginning at 10 a.m. Central on NET2 world, streaming live at Netnebraska.org, and on our new Nebraska Capitol Live app. You can also join in a live online discussion of the issue from 1:30 to 2:30 Central. Go to netnebraska.org/chat.