Supporters and opponents of abolishing Nebraska’s death penalty renewed their argument in a public hearing Wednesday. Meanwhile, lawmakers gave first-round approval to a proposed state constitutional amendment to legalize betting on so-called "historic" horseracing.
The death penalty hearing was the first since longtime opponent Ernie Chambers returned to the Legislature after a four-year absence. And while many of the arguments, and the people who testified, were familiar, the occasion lacked some of the drama of past years. One exception was the testimony of Miriam Thimm Kelle, whose brother James Thimm was tortured and murdered by Michael Ryan near Rulo, Nebraska in 1985. Kelle supported repeal of the death penalty, saying every time the case comes up, it’s all about Ryan, and not about her brother. "If execution ever comes, it’ll be another day about Mike Ryan and nothing about James," she said.
In all, 13 people in addition to Chambers testified in favor of repealing the death penalty and replacing it with a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole, while only two spoke against it. One of those was Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who testified for the Nebraska County Attorneys Association. "This is an issue that the people of the State of Nebraska need to decide. And for that reason, I think it’s good to have this debate," Kleine declared. "The county attorneys association is opposed. We feel that in certain unique circumstances, in the state of Nebraska, that we need to have this ultimate punishment on certain unique cases."
Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center testified neutral on the bill, but emphasized the cost of death penalty cases, which he put at around $3 million per case, whether or not the person is executed. He said Nebraska has had 35 death penalty cases since the 1970s, costing around $100 million, and executed three people, at a cost of about $30 million per execution.
Dieter questioned what else could have been done with that money. "Thirty million dollars for an execution or $30 million for say 60 more police officers on the streets or better lighting in crime areas or more teachers – that’s a lot of money that might actually reduce the level of violence," he said.
The Judiciary Committee took no immediate action on the bill, but Committee Chairman Sen. Brad Ashford has said he expects it will advance the proposal to the full Legislature for debate.
Meanwhile, after four days of debate, lawmakers voted first-round approval for a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize betting on so-called "historic" horseraces. Those are races that have already been run that are displayed on video terminals where people can bet without knowing which specific race they’re betting on.
Supporters say such betting, conducted at the state’s existing racetracks, would be a way to support the live horseracing industry. Opponents say it would expand gambling and add to social ills.
Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher suggested such judgments don’t belong in the state constitution to begin with. Schumacher referred to the original prohibition on gambling in Nebraska’s Constitution. "It started out back in the days of 1867 as saying very simply ‘The Legislature shall not authorize divorce or games of chance.’ It was one of those futile attempts, like Prohibition, to try to legislate into a constitution the social or economic mores of a particular piece of time," he said.
Imperial Sen. Mark Christensen opposed the measure. And he told his fellow senators the best way to stop it was to vote against the motion to shut off debate, which requires two-thirds of the Legislature to approve. "A lot of people will ask you, ‘Give us a cloture vote. You can vote against the bill.’ That’s cause they’re wanting to move the standard from 33 votes back down to 25," he said.
In the end, senators voted 33 to 13 to shut off debate. The measure then got first-round approval on a vote
The proposal would need 30 votes on final reading in order to be put before Nebraska voters in November of 2014. The one lawmaker who was absent for the vote, Sen. Scott Price of Bellevue, voted against a similar proposal last year, and said later he’s still against it.
Editor’s note: For more on capital punishment in Nebraska, you can watch the NET News documentary "Until He is Dead: A History of Nebraska’s Death Penalty."