|©2000 www.nebraskapen.org||Last Updated: 04/07/00|
"The question with which we must deal is not whether a substantial proportion of American citizens would today, if polled, opine that capital punishment is barbarously cruel, but whether they would find it to be so in light of all information presently available."
Former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (1972)
Nine men currently are facing the death penalty in Nebraska. As of June 6, 1998, there are about 150 inmates serving First Degree Life sentences in Nebraska, and about 65 more serving Second Degree Life sentences. The disparity in those numbers is one of the reasons that the Nebraska Unicameral has mandated a legislative study of the death penalty over the next two years. This study will attempt to determine the fairness of the use of the more severe and ultimate punishment available to the state.
The risk of executing the innocent, which is an unacceptable risk when life in prison is available as an alternative, is only one of the many forces behind a gathering movement to end the death penalty, or at least impose an execution moratorium until there is better citizen understanding that this very brutal an cruel form of retribution, if not mindless vengeance, is being fairly applied. It may be that it is impossible to ever fairly apply such a sentence which is sometimes more gruesomely imposed than people may realize.
The continued use of the electric chair in Nebraska could be affected by this coming ruling. The inventor of this method of execution, founding electric magnate George Westinghouse, was not happy with his invention. After its first use in New York in 1890 he said, "They could have done it better with an axe."
Besides Nebraska, only Alabama and Georgia still use the electric chair as the only means of execution. In Nebraska a great deal of effort is going into the attempt to change this method of execution to lethal injection in case the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down this method of execution. If that would happen then Nebraska would be caught having no legal means of execution in state law. In Ohio, South Carolina, and Virginia, the electric chair is an option for the condemned, but nearly all opt to die by lethal injection instead.
In November, 1999 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the claims of two long-term death row inmates who had claimed that their 20 years or more of pre-execution confinement was, in itself, a form of cruel and unwarranted punishment. In the same Washington Spectator article, Justice Stephen Breyer makes the point that he wanted to hear the two cases filed by prisoners in Florida and Nebraska.
Breyer said that both cases, one of which was filed by Carey Dean Moore of Nebraska, "involve astonishingly long delays flowing from significant constitutionally defective death penalty procedures. When a delay, measured in decades, reflects that state's own failure to comply with the Constitution's demands, the claim that time has rendered the execution inhumane is a particularly strong one."
Justice Breyer was alluding here to the constitutional tradition of Habeas Corpus, which is Latin for "you have the body." Its actual meaning today could be said to be that the judicial system gets the dead body of those it executes. That is not exactly the "great writ" of Habeas Corpus that was intended to protect a citizen from illegal imprisonment.
Justice Breyer noted that the highest courts in India and Zimbabwe have considered protracted delays in deciding whether executions can be carried out, and that courts in countries that share with the United States the English common law tradition--including India, Jamaica, and Zimbabwe-- have declared such delays "inhuman."
The argument of racial bias in capital punishment cases is challenged by the view that blacks commit more crimes. But in the most definitive study of this conflict, the highly regarded non-partisan bookkeeping arm of the U.S. Congress, the General Accounting Office, in a review of historic data collected up to 1990 found that, "The race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty."
As researchers at the Death Penalty Information Center explain, the cost of criminal executions averages $2.1 million each because the executions are delayed by years of post-sentencing appeals. The cost of a lifetime in prison is about $20,000 a year, meaning that a prison term of 100 years, an obviously unlikely span of survival, would cost $100,000 less than execution.
A more recent study, one for the American Bar Association in 1998, found that in 26 states out of the 38 that still have the death penalty, defendants were more likely to be sentenced to death if the victims were white than if they were black.
She also points out that race has become the foremost factor on who is sentenced to death. In Illinois, she points out, the death row population is 67% African American. The nationwide death row population includes a makeup of 42% blacks and 57% whites, while blacks only make up 12% of the nation's population.
"...Ephesians 4:32 says, 'we all are to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as Christ has forgiven you.' This does not mean that people shouldn't be held responsible for their actions, they certainly should. We can, however, be forgiven and changed if we acknowledge our sins/wrongs before God and the people we have wronged. Some of us in prison have tried to do just that, learn from our mistakes and go forward trying to help others not make the same mistakes we have. We have been able to do this through, first, the love and forgiveness of Christ and then through the love and support from various people. And that is the only way that we are going to be able to stop the madness that is now going on in society. People are not going to change because of the laws getting tougher, or sentences getting longer. They are going to change because of the caring examples that they see. Because then they can admit their wrongs to the people that have been wronged and a healing can take place and through this, positive growth can happen for society. Nothing can ever change for the better when society uses one act of violence to make amends for another act of violence. It only makes matters worse. If acts of violence to stop other acts of violence were working, then Texas would be the safest place in the country. It is not. Plain and simply, violence, no matter who does it, only leads to more somewhere down the road. Only when our society follows Christ's example of justice blended with mercy and forgiveness will people's negative thoughts and actions be changed. But also, society must not forget that people can change. Some of the most famous Bible characters had criminal records, yet were used by God."
The Governor has made it clear that he wants to change the method of execution from the electric chair to lethal injection during this legislative session. Is his motivation that he feels this is very cruel and harsh to torture a person like this in order to kill them? Or is it because he fears that the US Supreme Court will strike down the electric chair as cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional, leaving Nebraska unable to put anyone to death until new laws are passed to detail a new method of execution? Or is he afraid that the Court finding the electric chair unconstitutional would allow everyone now on death row to avoid execution by any means?
Before glossing over the taking of a life by making it more palatable with the use of a syringe instead of the electric chair, every lawmaker and citizen needs to consider the importance of life. Both the life of the victims of the convicted and the life that the state is about to take on behalf of all the good people of the state, one life is just as valuable as the other, and the taking of that life, as with any life, should never be easy or sterile.
The current study of the death penalty and its fair imposition would not even be taking place if not for the support of several proponents of the death penalty in the Unicameral. Some of which are the very same senators who voted down a moratorium on executions in Nebraska for the two-year period of this study. These senators who favor capital punishment clearly have one goal in mind for this study. That goal is to make it clear to the good people of the state that more death sentences should be issued by the judges who serve the people. If the study reveals that far too often Nebraskans are given the death penalty not for committing the worst crimes, but for having the worst lawyers, will these same senators support new laws to make justice for all a reality in Nebraska? Or will they instead recommend new laws to broaden the use of the death penalty in Nebraska so that it becomes fairer by being more deadly?