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Death penalty opponents say it’s time for another statewide vote on the issue

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Death penalty opponents say it’s time for another statewide vote on the issue

Mar 16, 2023 | 9:00 pm ET
By Paul Hammel
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Death penalty opponents say it’s time for another statewide vote on the issue
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State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha discusses his proposal to let Nebraskans vote to repeal the death penalty. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Opponents of the death penalty argued Thursday that it’s time to give Nebraskans another opportunity to repeal a punishment they called “cruel and inhumane.” 

“We say we care about lives and values, but we still support this horrible piece of policy,” said State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha.

At a press conference, McKinney was joined by representatives of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, ACLU of Nebraska, the Nebraska Catholic Conference and Amnesty International in calling for passage of a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit capital punishment.

Life sentence would replace execution

If  the Legislature approved Legislative Resolution 17CA, it would go before voters in 2024. The proposal would replace the death penalty with life in prison for the most serious murders.

A vote in 2024 would be six years after voters overwhelmingly approved restoring the death penalty — by a 3-to-2 margin.

Curt Messner
Curt Messner (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

That vote followed a historic decision by the Nebraska Legislature in 2015 to repeal capital punishment — a repeal that overcame a veto by then-Gov. Pete Ricketts. The millionaire governor, along with his family, helped finance the petition drive to put the matter on the ballot.

Repeal passed in four states

When advocates for repeal were asked why another vote was needed after the resounding defeat in 2016, they said that nationally, support for the death penalty has waned and that since 2016, four states — Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire and Washington — have repealed capital punishment.

Nebraska is one of 27 states that have a death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, though in four of those states, executions have been put on hold in part due to concerns about botched executions. The federal government has also placed a moratorium on executions pending a review of capital punishment protocols.

Victim’s brother urges repeal

Curt Messner, whose sister Janet and another woman were murdered by Randy Reeves at a Quaker meeting house in Nebraska in 1980, was among those urging repeal of the death sentence on Thursday.

Messner said that when Reeves, who was a foster child taken in by the Messner family, was sentenced to die, it increased Messner’s grief.

“I know it was not right,” he said of the sentence.

Reeves came within two days of being executed in 1999, but his sentence was later reduced to life in prison after a ruling by the Nebraska Supreme Court. Reeves died in prison in 2016.

McKinney and others said that getting the issue on the ballot would provide an opportunity to educate voters on the issue.

Former Attorney General Don Stenberg, who co-chaired the effort to restore the death penalty, said he doubted whether public opinion on the issue had changed.

Majority see it as ‘appropriate penalty’

“I think a majority of Nebraskans think if someone commits a mass murder or tortures children like John Joubert did, the death penalty is an appropriate penalty,” Stenberg said.

Death penalty opponents say it’s time for another statewide vote on the issue
Former Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg (Curtesy of Don Stenberg)

Joubert, an airman at Offutt Air Force Base, was executed in Nebraska in 1996 for the torture-slayings of two young boys in Sarpy County. He also admitted to killing another boy in his home state of Maine in 1982.

Fran Kaye, a longtime death penalty opponent, said it was dogged work with state senators that led to the repeal vote in 2015, informing them about how death penalty is inhumane, is disproportionately applied to people of color and is not a deterrent to crime. 

Such an educational effort, Kaye said, could also convince voters to also support repeal.

Supporters of repeal said another reason to end capital punishment was the possibility of executing an innocent person for a murder they didn’t commit.

Since 1976, 191 people sentenced to death have been exonerated nationally.

No one testified against LR 17CA during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Thursday. But a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office indicated that the office opposed the proposal.