Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Lethal injection bill advances
May 20, 2009
BY PAUL HAMMEL
LINCOLN - The growing support for capital punishment within the Nebraska Legislature was clearly evident Tuesday.
Observers credited term limits and the exit of the Legislature's leading death-penalty foe, State Sen. Ernie Chambers, as the leading reasons.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us," said Jill Francke, statewide coordinator for Nebraskans against the Death Penalty.
Francke spoke after state senators gave 34-7 first-round approval for adopting lethal injection as the means of carrying out capital punishment.
Nebraska has been without a legal means of execution since the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled 14 months ago that electrocution, the current method, violated the state constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Before the vote to advance lethal injection, lawmakers voted down two amendments brought by death-penalty opponents, including a 33-13 drubbing of an effort to repeal capital punishment.
The margin of victory was stark compared with two years ago, when a similar repeal attempt mustered 24 votes - one fewer than a majority in the 49-member Legislature. Last year, an attempt to do away with the death penalty lost 28-20.
The winds of change blew in with term limits, which brought a total of 36 new senators into the Legislature in 2006 and 2008.
Term limits also removed Chambers, the fiery north Omaha senator who for much of his 38 years in office stalled and filibustered debate to prevent adoption of lethal injection and promote repeal of the death penalty.
"He was very persuasive, such that I wondered if he had some training in hypnotism," said Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln, a death-penalty supporter.
New senators, Fulton said, simply reflect Nebraskans' support of the death penalty.
Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, whose lethal injection proposal served as the platform for the repeal try, said campaigning for office required the new legislators to form an opinion about the death penalty.
"It's an issue they get asked about a lot," Flood said.
Of those elected in 2008, 10 voted to support the death penalty and six voted to repeal it.
Sen. Danielle Nantkes of Lincoln, a leading opponent, said capital punishment is more complicated than people believe, requiring more than one or two terms to digest.
"These are highly complex technical, legal and policy issues that require a lot of time to gain an understanding of," she said.
Chambers, over the years, might have helped shape the opinions of other senators he served with, said Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln, a death-penalty foe. But that was before the law changed, limiting senators to two four-year terms.
Five senators who voted in 2007 to repeal the death penalty voted against repeal Tuesday.
Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha was one of them. She said Tuesday she didn't like the wording of the motion. She said she still opposes the death penalty.
Sen. Norm Wallman of Cortland, who also said he opposes the death penalty, was recorded as "not voting" Tuesday.
One 2007 repeal supporter, Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, was absent and did not vote.
Sen. Abbie Cornett of Bellevue said she is a death-penalty supporter who lent a vote to repeal on first-round debate in 2007 to extend the debate.
Sen. Greg Adams of York said his vote for repeal in 2007 was based on his opposition to the use of the electric chair.
"Voting for or against the death penalty has never been easy for me," Adams said. "At least with lethal injection, I feel slightly more comfortable."
Lawmakers debated for nearly 10 hours Monday and Tuesday before advancing Legislative Bill 36, the lethal injection measure, to second-round debate.
The first-round debate was emotional, centering on issues of fairness, morality and the extra costs of capital punishment, as well as whether it deters murder or is "state-sanctioned revenge."
Nebraska is the last state that used the electric chair exclusively as its means of execution.
Flood, who represents a district where five people were shot to death inside a bank in 2002, introduced the lethal injection measure to "close the loophole" created by the Supreme Court ruling.
"This bill is not about 'Should we have a death penalty?' We have a death penalty. We just need a method," said Flood, the speaker of the Legislature.
But Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha, who introduced the repeal measure, said changing the method of execution wouldn't solve the inherent unfairness of the death penalty. It would only extend the court appeals, she said, which now take nearly 20 years to exhaust.
"This is tantamount to a defense bar's gift of a winning lottery ticket," Council said, holding up a copy of LB 36. "It will be a long time before you see an execution, if ever."
How Nebraska legislators voted Tuesday on an amendment to repeal the death penalty:
Voting against (33): Adams, Campbell, Carlson, Christensen, Cornett, Fischer, Flood, Friend, Fulton, Gay, Giese, Gloor, Hadley, Hansen, Harms, Heidemann, Howard, Janssen, Karpisek, Lautenbaugh, Louden, McCoy, Nelson, Pahls, Pankonin, Pirsch, Price, Schilz, Stuthman, Sullivan, Utter, White, Wightman.
Voting for (13): Ashford, Avery, Coash, Cook, Council, Dierks, Haar, Lathrop, McGill, Mello, Nantkes, Nordquist, Rogert.
Present not voting (1): Wallman.
Excused (2): Dubas, Langemeier. How they voted on first-round advancement of LB 36, to switch the method of execution to lethal injection:
Voting for (34): Adams, Ashford, Campbell, Carlson, Christensen, Cornett, Fischer, Flood, Friend, Fulton, Gay, Giese, Gloor, Hadley, Hansen, Harms, Heidemann, Janssen, Karpisek, Lautenbaugh, Louden, McCoy, Nelson, Pahls, Pankonin, Pirsch, Price, Rogert, Schilz, Stuthman, Sullivan, Utter, White, Wightman.
Voting against (7): Coash, Cook, Council, Dierks, Haar, Howard, Nantkes.
Present not voting (6): Avery, Lathrop, McGill, Mello, Nordquist, Wallman.
Excused (2): Dubas, Langemeier.
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