Nebraska

Nebraska death penalty repeal on hold


Supporters of retaining the death penalty in Nebraska turned in thousands more signatures than necessary on Wednesday to suspend the repeal and place the issue before voters.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty turned in petitions containing 166,692 signatures. Leaders of the group called that a surprisingly large number and said it signaled that voters in the 2016 general election will retain the ultimate penalty for the most heinous murders, reversing the repeal enacted by the State Legislature this spring.
A lot of senators will find out that their constituents have a different view, I really believe that,” said State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, a death penalty supporter who circulated petitions.
Opponents of the death penalty, meanwhile, said that they expect Nebraska voters to come to the same conclusion as 30 of the state’s 49 state lawmakers. Voters will learn that the risks of executing innocent people, the “tremendous waste” of taxpayer dollars and the hurdles in obtaining the necessary drugs have made the death penalty immoral, unjust and unworkable, said the Rev. Stephen Griffith of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
“Just like the legislators they elected, we believe the more Nebraskans learn about the failures of capital punishment, the more they will be inclined to get rid of it,” said Griffith, the group’s new executive director.
The pro-death penalty group formed in June and launched its petition drive just after state lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto and repealed the death penalty.
The vote drew national attention as Nebraska became the first conservative state since North Dakota in 1973 to do away with the death penalty. Currently, 31 states have capital punishment.
But the victory by death penalty opponents in Nebraska now appears to be in jeopardy.
The pro-capital punishment group turned in nearly 3 times as many signatures as is necessary to place the issue on the ballot: 5 % of the state’s registered voters, about 57,000 signatures. The drive must also meet that 5 % threshold in 38 of the state’s 93 counties.
But Nebraskans for the Death Penalty also appears to have a comfortable cushion to suspend the repeal of the death penalty until voters decide its fate at the ballot box.
To do that, the drive needed to submit valid signatures of 10 percent of the state’s voters, or about 114,000 signatures.
Typically, 15 % to 25 % of signatures are invalidated, either because a signer wasn’t registered to vote or for other technical reasons. Even if 25 % of the signatures were disqualified, the drive would still have 125,000 valid signatures, more than enough to suspend the repeal.
State Treasurer Don Stenberg, a former attorney general who was an honorary co-chairman of the pro-death penalty group, said there was “a lot of significance” to collecting so many signatures.
“It’s reflective of the tremendous support that Nebraskans have in keeping the death penalty,” Stenberg said.
He was one of several supporters of capital punishment who spoke at an afternoon press conference, staged in front of an 8-foot-high wall of boxes holding petitions gathered by the group’s nearly 600 paid and volunteer circulators. Signatures were collected in all 93 counties.
Officials in the counties are expected to take more than a month to count and validate the signatures.
Stenberg, as well as the Attorney General’s Office, both said the signatures are presumed valid when they are turned in, until the count proves otherwise.
So, they said, the repeal of the death penalty – which was scheduled to go into effect on Sunday – is on hold until the count is completed.
“There will be some uncertainty in the law,” Stenberg said. But, he added, “It’s not unusual to have uncertainty in the law.”
Nebraska lacks the necessary drugs to carry out an execution via its only legal means, lethal injection. But Stenberg, who as attorney general presided over the state’s last 3 executions in the 1990s, said that if the state obtains the necessary drugs, there’s nothing preventing current Attorney General Doug Peterson from asking for execution dates for the 10 men on death row.
Peterson, on Wednesday, said he was reviewing the cases.
The State Supreme Court would have to approve any requests for execution dates. It’s unclear if the court would do that while a referendum on the issue is pending and after the Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty.
One of the senators who voted for the repeal, Bob Krist of Omaha, said death penalty supporters will need a lot more support to overturn the repeal in the 2016 election.
He said the referendum should not be about vengeance but “justice and fiscal conservatism.” Krist said the state has spent millions and only executed 3 people in the last 6 decades.
He also questioned if the drive collected most of its signatures from Omaha and Lincoln, or from areas like Norfolk and Falls City, where there have been horrible murders and support for capital punishment is higher.
“So here we go. Game on,” Krist said.
Officials with Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said they collected enough signatures to qualify the issue for the ballot in the 1st month, then used a last-minute push to qualify the measure in the necessary 38 counties.
Chris Peterson, the drive’s spokesman, said the group expects to spend about $800,000 to $900,000 on its petition-gathering effort, which included hiring hundreds of paid circulators and an Arizona consulting company.
That spending, he said, is comparable to what a group spent last year to get an initiative petition on the ballot to increase the state’s minimum wage. Nebraskans for Better Wages turned in 134,899 signatures after a 60-day drive.
Ricketts and his family were among the prime financiers for the pro-death penalty drive. The Republican governor contributed $200,000 in the first 2 months, and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, gave $100,000.
Officials with the pro-death penalty group said that petition signers overwhelmingly said they deserved a chance to vote on the issue.
“It’s too important of an issue to be left to the give-and-take of politics,” said Groene.
Vivian Tuttle of Ewing, whose daughter Evonne was 1 of 5 people slain during an attempted robbery at a Norfolk bank in 2002, said she put 8,000 miles on her car seeking support for the referendum drive.
“Wherever I went, people said ‘I want to help do this,'” Tuttle said.
The last time a referendum petition appeared on the ballot was in 2006, when voters were asked whether to overturn a law mandating the consolidation of Class I school districts.
Source: lexch.com, August 29, 2015

Nebraska group says it can stop death penalty repeal


An organization campaigning to reinstate Nebraska’s death penalty after lawmakers repealed it in May said Wednesday it has collected more than enough signatures to suspend the law before it goes into effect and place it before voters in 2016.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which was heavily financed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state’s counties. Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature had voted to repeal capital punishment over the objection of Ricketts, becoming the 1st traditionally conservative state to do so in 42 years.
The pro-death penalty group needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal going into effect. They appear to have exceeded the 10 % of registered voters hurdle needed to block repeal pending a November 2016 ballot measure on the issue.
“Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers,” said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive.
The announcement came just before the repeal law was set to go into effect on Sunday, but the signatures still need to be verified. The petitions now go to the Nebraska secretary of state’s office, which will forward them to counties to verify the signatures in a process that will take about 40 days.
Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, who supports the death penalty, said in a statement that the signatures are “presumptively valid” until determined otherwise. Stenberg said no one will know the exact number of valid signatures for at least a month, but the state constitution makes clear that petitions go into effect on the day they’re submitted.
Even if the law is suspended, Nebraska currently has no way to execute any of the 10 men on death row because its lacks 2 of the 3 required lethal injection drugs and has struggled to obtain them legally. The state paid $54,400 in May to order the drugs from a broker in India, but federal authorities have said they can’t be legally imported.
Nebraska lawmakers voted by the narrowest possible margin, 30-19, to override Ricketts’ veto. Ricketts assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents. The repeal vote was helped by an unusual coalition of conservative state senators and more traditional death penalty opponents who had fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some conservatives said they opposed it for religious and moral reasons, while others cast it as an inefficient government program that wastes tax money.
“What the Nebraska Legislature did is going to have an effect,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, whose group takes no stance on the death penalty but often criticizes how it’s administered. “The message that conservative legislators can reach across the aisle with moderate and liberal legislators – that message is still there and still resonates.”
Nebraska hasn’t executed an inmate since 1997, and has never done so using the state’s current 3-drug lethal injection protocol.
The state was the 19th to abolish capital punishment, as has the District of Columbia, while the death penalty is legal in 31 states and for some federal crimes. The number of executions in the United States has gradually declined in recent years and only a handful of states led by Texas regularly put inmates to death.
The announcement of the number of signatures caps an 82-day petition drive backed by Ricketts and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The governor had given $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty as of the last filing deadline on July 31, while his father had donated $100,000. The group raised a total of more than $652,000 from 40 individual donors and seven groups classified as businesses, political action committees and other entities.
The largest donation in July came from the conservative, Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, which gave $200,000. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty relied on a combination of paid and volunteer petition circulators, and was aided by an Arizona-based strategist who specializes in ballot campaigns.
Source: Associated Press, August 28, 2015

 

Anti-Death Penalty Activists Are Winning The Fundraising Battle In Nebraska


In May, the state abolished the death penalty. Now, the fundraising race is on between groups trying to put the death penalty up for a statewide vote – or keep it off the ballot.
After the Nebraska legislature successfully abolished the death penalty in the state, an expensive battle has begun to bring it back. But so far, the side against the death penalty is winning the fundraising battle.
The money is all about the potential for a statewide vote on the death penalty.
In May, the state’s conservative legislature narrowly overruled Republican Gov. Pete Rickett’s veto of the measure that abolished the death penalty. Ricketts vowed there would be a referendum to give voters the option to bring it back. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will need to collect 57,000 signatures by August to get the vote on the ballot. If they can manage to collect 114,000 signatures, the death penalty will remain on the books until voters weigh in.
The group estimates that it would need to spend about $900,000 to do so. So far, though, the group has been outraised by an organization opposing the death penalty referendum, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty raised $259,744 – and more than 75% of that came from the governor’s family. Ricketts and his father, the founder of TD Ameritrade, have given $200,000 to the group.
Another $10,000 was given to the pro-death penalty organization by an Omaha police union.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has spent almost all of the money it has currently raised in starting the signature collecting process. The group has $26,000 in cash remaining, but has $25,000 in unpaid legal and consulting bills.
On the other side, Nebraskans for Public Safety (an anti-death penalty group) has not yet filed its full campaign finance report as of Thursday evening. But the group has disclosed receiving a $400,000 contribution from a progressive organization called Proteus Action League. The group is a 501c(4), meaning it does not disclose its donors.
This isn’t the 1st time Proteus Action League has spent money against the death penalty – the group spent more than $3.4 million on anti-death penalty efforts in 2012, according to an IRS filing.
The anti-death penalty group Nebraskans for Public Safety, which is affiliated with Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, has spent some of the money on television ads urging voters to not sign the petition.
Regardless of the outcome, Ricketts believes he will still be able to carry out the executions of the 10 men on death row. In pursuit of that, his Department of Correctional Services has spent more than $50,000 on execution drugs from a seller based in India.
Since the drugs are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the federal government says it intends to detain the shipment when it arrives.
Source: buzzfeed.com, July 1, 2015

 

NEBRASKA – Unsafe for execution ? The state of Nebraska hopes to execute a man with a drug that has been recalled by its manufacturer


June 7, 2012  Source : http://www.salon.com

On the farm they called him King. He was the Archangel Michael incarnate, they believed, and he spoke directly to Yahweh. In his name, they stockpiled more than $120,000 worth of stolen ammunition and prepared for the Battle of Armageddon, which their King decreed would be fought in the windswept wheat fields of Rulo, Neb. If anyone left, the King said, he would “hunt down and kill” them, and they would “burn in hell.”

The King was an unemployed truck driver named Michael Ryan — and he wasn’t bluffing. He’s been sitting on death row since 1986 for the murder and ritualistic torture – razor blades and chains, sodomization and forced bestiality – of fellow cult member James Thimm. Save for those ideologically opposed to the death penalty, few would argue he deserves anything else.

And yet Ryan survives in a prison cell today, despite the state of Nebraska’s best efforts to kill him. His execution has been sidelined by the continuing fallout from a shortage in the execution drug sodium thiopental, which began in August 2009 — a shortage that has quietly remodeled the death penalty in the United States. As states run out of sodium thiopental, they’re turning to new and questionable supplies of execution drugs. Prisoners, meanwhile, are fighting these changes at every turn: Their sentences were clear, they argue, and this wasn’t part of them.

“It has nothing to do with whether Michael Ryan or any other death row inmate deserves to die,” says Jerry Soucie, Ryan’s attorney and employee of the Nebraska Commission for Public Advocacy. “The issue is whether those people who decide they want to exercise the power to execute somebody are in compliance with the law. And if they’re not, there’s a problem. You don’t enforce the law by engaging in lawless conduct.”

In Nebraska, the effects of the shortage have been particularly acute. Nebraska has twice purchased sodium thiopental made overseas by non-FDA approved companies. (The shortage began when Hospira, the sole FDA-approved manufacturer of sodium thiopental, ceased production.) The first time, the DEA barred Nebraska from using its new thiopental for importing the drug without a proper license.

Then last November, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services announced it had purchased another new supply of sodium thiopental from a Swiss company called NAARI AG. Immediately following the announcement, the state attorney general’s office asked the Nebraska Supreme Court to set a new execution date for Michael Ryan. But 15 days later, NAARI CEO Prithi Kochhar sent a letter to the Nebraska Supreme Court asking for the drug’s return. In his letter, Kochhar explained that the NDCS had not purchased the sodium thiopental directly from NAARI. It had, in fact, been purchased from a Calcutta, India-based middleman named Chris Harris who was not authorized to resell the drug to Nebraska.

“I knew of Chris Harris, certainly his reputation for doing business,” says Jerry Soucie, Ryan’s attorney. “No question about it, he had a shady reputation. … I was just kind of shocked the NDCS would be dealing with him.”

According to Kochhar’s letter, NAARI supplied Harris with the drug in order to have it registered in Zambia, where they hoped to extend their coverage. Instead, Harris sold all 489 grams to the NDCS for $5,411, roughly 142 times its worth.

On May 9, after discovering the breach in its supply chain, NAARI issued a voluntary recall of the drug, noting that it was illegally diverted and could therefore be potentially unsafe. Nebraska officials have chosen not to comply with the recall, and Soucie contends they are in possession of stolen goods.

“The fact that NDCS would not honor our company recall…is a little shocking to us,” says Kochhar. “It seems that NDCS is not concerned about the effect of using an unsafe drug in any operation, not least one which might be used to end someone’s life in a potentially painful way.”

And Nebraska isn’t only refusing to comply with NAARI. Last March, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled the Food and Drug Administration was wrong to allow foreign-made sodium thiopental into the country. Furthermore, Leon ordered the FDA to notify all state correctional departments with supplies of the drug to relinquish them to the FDA. Rather than comply with that order, the Nebraska attorney general’s office asked the FDA to appeal Judge Leon’s ruling and is currently still in possession of the drug. Fourteen other states have since called for the same appeal.

“The states that are positioned better are the states looking further down the road for alternatives rather than holding on to something because they don’t want to change,” says Richard Deiter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

These states have given up on thiopental completely. As recently as May 18, Idaho announced it had switched to a lethal dose of the surgical sedative pentobarbital. Missouri recently became the first state to formally adopt the anesthetic propofol, the same drug that killed Michael Jackson. According to Deiter, Nebraska and other states resisting a change to their lethal injection protocol are only delaying the inevitable. Domestic suppliers of sodium thiopental have run dry and the drugs carry an expiration date.

“States know that as soon as they make a change, the change will be challenged in court,” Deiter says, “but not making a change is also being challenged. I think states are going to have to find a source of drugs within the United States if they’re going to carry out lethal injections in a reliable, predictable manner.”

Yet despite all of this – despite a federal ruling and company recall, despite the fact that Nebraska’s current batch of sodium thiopental was illegally imported, despite the fact that change is the only way forward – State Attorney General Jon Bruning said Ryan’s challenge is merely “a circus sideshow,” according to the Lincoln Journal Star, and Governor Dave Heineman maintains it’s simply the latest tactic employed by death penalty opponents. Both Bruning and Gov. Heineman, who continue to steer the conversation towards Ryan’s execution rather than the efficacy of the drug, declined to be interviewed.

“When the powers that be in Nebraska or wherever decide they’re going to kill someone using either stolen drugs or without the proper licensing, then why do we have a legal system at all?” Soucie says. “Why don’t we take the guy out behind the building and shoot him once in the back of the head with a 9 mm? It would be just as lawless for them to do that as it is for them to violate federal law in carrying out an execution.”