Sunday, March 25, 2007

Behind the Headlines: The Death Penalty Debate

by Kyle Michaelis
Last week saw the first real debate of Nebraska's death penalty on the floor of the legislature in almost 20 years. The crucial vote to move Sen. Ernie Chambers' repeal of the death penalty (LB 476) out of the first round of debate failed by a single vote, 24 For to 25 Against. As the Omaha World-Herald highlighted in its coverage, that deciding vote was cast by State Sen. Arnie Stuthman of Platte Center, who initially did not register a vote in hopes that his vote "would not be needed."

Of course, moving the bill to the next round of debate would not by any means have assured its ultimate passage. But, the people of Nebraska seem to have been genuinely surprised by the level of support that was demonstrated for repealing Nebraska's death penalty. The fact that the vote was so close assures that the issue will be raised again, likely in the 2008 session. There has been talk of less drastic restrictions on the death penalty being brought to the floor this year to capitalize on the apparent momentum behind outright repeal, but one wonders if Chambers wouldn't stand in the way of such proposals to force a prolonged public debate and a final showdown next year on the ultimate issue of capital punishment.

Then again, at this point last year, the people of Nebraska were still completely in the dark about Chambers' controversial plan to divide Omaha Public Schools into three racially-distinct school districts, so there's really no knowing what card the legendary firebrand might have up his T-shirt's metaphorical sleeves.

From everything I've seen and read, the debate of LB 476 was a very honest, impassioned, and - for some Senators - an understandably painful demonstration of democracy in action. Having personally wrestled with the death penalty in a very abstract way for years, I do not envy anyone having to make a choice influenced by so many competing emotions raising such fundamental questions of who we are as a people and what we stand for as a society. But it's the decisions such as this that are the true test of elected office - decisions from which a politician cannot hide before the voters, before the judgment of future generations, and before the dictates of his or her own conscience.

Although I'm not philosophically opposed to capital punishment, there is no overcoming the mountains of evidence of economic disparity, racial bias, and outright injustice in its actual application. Although I can not say that the people and the state have no right to execute the most heinous of criminals, this is so great a power that it brings shame upon us all in its current conception. Until we can absolutely avoid the proven error and inequality that makes such mockery of our justice system, we do not deserve and should not exercise this right to kill.

So, I applaud Chambers and the other 23 Senators who voted for repeal of capital punishment. And, I call on readers to join the Lincoln Journal-Star and the New Nebraska Network - amongst others - in demanding that those Senators who succeeded in defending the status quo wake up to the inexcusable reality of the death penalty in practice. The right to execute does not overcome our higher responsibilities to justice and to our own humanity that cannot be reconciled with our current system.

In particular, I would recommend that constituents of Tony Fulton (LD 29), Russ Karpisek (LD 32), Arnie Stuthman (LD 22), and Tom White (LD 8) contact their State Senator and ask that he reconsider his position. As the World-Herald reported of Sen. White, his father signed the 1994 death warrant for Harold "Walking Willy" Otey, and the murderer of his wife's brother-in-law 27 years ago remains on death row in Nevada. But, it's the following connection that should be all the convincing White needs to change his vote:
White's brother is a public defender in Cook County, Ill. In Illinois, more than 50 people were released from death row after DNA tests showed their innocence.
A system fraught with that much error is a broken system that can not be allowed to continue. And, anyone who thinks these mistakes are confined to Illinois has another thing coming.

This vote is over, but the debate has just begun. Get out there and be heard. Sure, there's an almost certain veto by Gov. Dave Heineman looming that would require an unlikely 30 votes to override. Such veto might even play to Heineman's advantage with many voters.

But, the politics of the issue are secondary to the principles for which we must stand. At last, on this issue of life and death, let us find the strength to be true to our better selves.

As published by the Lincoln Journal-Star and

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