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“The People’s Republic Of Nebraska?”: Nebraska’s No-Stalemate, Commie Legislature

Forget everything you know about Nebraska. Placidity, Midwestern aw-shucks-ness, red-meat exports and red-state politics? Nope, nope, nope, nope. In the past few days, the Cornhusker State’s legislature has astonished the nation with the kind of legislative assertiveness that could make Congressional Tea Partiers sputter in rage.

On May 27, the state legislature voted to override Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of legislation that repealed the death penalty, making it the first red state in decades to bar executions. The next day, the state overrode the governor’s veto of legislation letting DREAMers—immigrants whose parents brought them into the country illegally when they were young—get driver’s licenses. And if that doesn’t have conservatives diving for the smelling salts, get this: These moves came just two weeks after the legislature overrode a veto of a hike on the gas tax.

So in the last few whirlwind weeks, a state mostly known for its corn products and youth football players has banned the death penalty, started giving driver’s licenses to ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS!!, and—take a deep breath—raised taxes. But, despite appearances, this isn’t because carpetbagging liberal interlopers have launched a subversively successful campaign to turn the state into Vermont for college football fans. Rather, the structure of the state’s legislature makes weird alliances and inter-party strategizing the norm, not the exception. And people troubled by the partisanship that dominates national politics would be well-served to take note.

Instead of having a house and senate like the other 49 states, Nebraska has a single, unicameral legislative chamber. On top of that, party distinctions are invisible there: No majority and minority leaders, no whips, no partisan caucusing, none of that. State Sen. Colby Coash said that gives lawmakers significantly more latitude to vote their consciences than legislators in other states have. He said that delegations from other states sometimes visit their Capitol and look on with envy. Those lawmakers, he added, sometimes fear that if they break party lines, party whips will threaten to take away their office space, their staff budgets, and even their parking spots.

“When you don’t have a party boss on either side, I think it frees you to use your mind and to make decisions that you think are right,” the senator said.

On top of that, every bill that legislators introduce gets an open, public committee hearing, so legislators don’t worry that their bills will get shelved indefinitely, and they don’t feel the same pressure to suck up to any party leadership.

“In most states you can introduce anything you want—but if you aren’t in the right party or don’t know the right person, you don’t even get a hearing on your bill,” Coash said. Nebraska’s political culture is very different, he added.

This unique independence played a huge role in the passage of the death penalty repeal, he said. Though the governor has been an adamant, vocal, and dogged advocate of keeping the death penalty, a critical mass of Republican lawmakers didn’t fear bucking him.

“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” Ricketts said in a statement after the override vote, USA Today reported. The unicameral was “out of touch” with the state’s voters, he added.

Lawmakers, obviously, didn’t share those qualms.

“The Nebraska structure fosters a culture of people voting on their conscience rather than by politics,” said Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, who helped organize the anti-death-penalty push that unified conservatives and progressives.

Stopping executions was just the start. The legislature’s decision to override the governor and implement a gas tax might be even more surprising, given the pressure national anti-tax groups put on state legislators to resist these kind of hikes. The state currently taxes gas at 26.5 cents per gallon, and it hasn’t raised that number in years. Advocates of the tax hike argued that the state needed to spend more on road and bridge maintenance, and that their options for finding the funds were slim.

“There’s just potholes everywhere here,” said Perry Pirsch, a prominent Lincoln attorney and spokesman for Citizens for a Better Lincoln PAC. “And there’s bridges that are in rough shape and potentially could crumble if they’re not worked on in the years to come, and we were overdue for an increase.”

And Jim Vokal, CEO of the Platte Institute for Economic Research, said his typically anti-tax group favored the hike, but wished it had been part of a broad tax reform bill.

“Typically the unicameral has operated with an independent mindset and that was certainly evident this year,” he added.

The fact that Nebraska decided to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure funding puts it in stark contrast with Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker proposed issuing bonds to fund road improvement projects.

And who’s going to be paying higher gas taxes to drive on hopefully improved roads and bridges in the People’s Republic of Nebraska? Undocumented immigrants are going to be paying (some of) those taxes, thanks to even more bipartisan leadership-bucking. When the legislature overrode Ricketts’ veto, Nebraska became the last state in the country to let undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children get driver’s licenses.

So depending on your perspective, Nebraska is either a corn-fed, post-partisan Utopia or an anarchic pit of death-penalty-free chaos. Nebraskans seem inclined to think the former.

“There’s a lot of people in Nebraska who feel very strongly about their independent-mindedness,” said Ari Kohen, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “And to see it play out this way and have the nation see it play out this way, there’s a pride in that.”


By: Betsy Woodruff, The Daily Beast, May 30, 2015

May 31, 2015 Posted by | Death Penalty, Nebraska Legislature, Pete Ricketts | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“When We Do Unto Others”: Good News, Maybe; Firing Squads Are Not Tourist Attractions

We should have seen this coming, I suppose.

We are, after all, the can-do country. Nobody is going to tell us what we can and cannot do, even as they make it impossible for us to do what we used to do before they said we couldn’t do it anymore. If this sounds a bit muddled, welcome to the desperate illogic behind our devotion to capital punishment.

It turns out the collective conscience of the civilized world does not share our affection for government-sanctioned murder. We don’t call it that, of course. We refer to it as the “death penalty,” as if calling murder something other than murder makes it all right when we do unto others precisely what we’ve insisted they shouldn’t have done to someone else.

For many years, our weapon of choice has been lethal injection, a deadly cocktail of paralytic and anesthetic drugs, combined with potassium chloride. The idea is to make death look peaceful so that no one involved in the process has to go home feeling like he or she just killed somebody.

Over time, prisons have to come to depend on third-party providers for their lethal injections. Until recently, that is, when suppliers announced they would no longer provide the primary anesthetic for executions. So now, here we are, facing a nationwide shortage of drugs needed to do the deadly deed.

Here comes Utah, where the state legislature has just received the governor’s blessing to bring back firing squads if lethal drugs aren’t available.

A modern-day firing squad is not the stuff of old movies, where the condemned man stood spur-to-spur and ramrod straight, puffing on a last cigarette dangling from his lips. Associated Press reporter Brady McCombs describes with horrifying detail just how these executions unfold in Utah.

The prisoner is strapped to a chair with a target pinned over his heart.

Let’s all take a moment and imagine that.

About 25 feet away, five shooters hide behind a wall and slide their .30-caliber rifles through slots. The gunmen are volunteers. As McCombs reported, so many gunmen volunteer that priority goes to those from the area where the crime was committed. Sort of like squatter’s rights, with ammo.

One of the guns is loaded with a blank. This apparently is meant to protect any shooter later seized by conscience over his eagerness to volunteer to kill an unarmed man strapped to a chair with a target pinned over his heart. Nothing shoos away a dark moment of the soul like the reassurance that we will never know for sure if our bullet blew up the heart of a fellow human.

Utah State Rep. Ray Paul sponsored the bill to bring back the firing squad. He assured the Associated Press last year that this isn’t nearly as awful as it sounds to those whose own hearts fibrillate at the thought of a person strapped to a chair with a target over his heart. Here, in the United States of America.

Paul’s advice: Settle down, all of you.

“The prisoner dies instantly,” he said. “It sounds draconian. It sounds really bad, but the minute the bullet hits your heart, you’re dead. There’s no suffering.”

Lest he sound callous, he added this: “There’s no easy way to put somebody to death, but you need to be efficient and effective about it. This is certainly one way to do that.”

(Psst, Team Paul: You really need to work on messaging.)

There’s a glimmer of hope for those who oppose this barbaric practice.

It’s called tourism.

Consider the following sample of headlines on Wednesday, March 25.

The Salt Lake Tribune: “Does firing squad law tarnish Utah’s image?”

ABC News: “Critics worry firing squad law will tarnish Utah’s image.”

U.S. News and World Report: “Critics worry decision to bring back firing squad as execution backup will hurt Utah’s image.”

Dare I suggest a theme here?

Could it be that people who like to swoop down glistening ski slopes and explore the cavernous wonders of nature aren’t keen on states with firing squads manned by an overabundance of volunteer gunmen?

Might they might even take their billions of tourism dollars elsewhere?

David Corsun is director of the University of Denver’s Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management. He told AP — go AP, by the way — that large organizations tend to avoid states that are drawing flak for recently passed laws. I may enjoy a little too much his conclusion about Utah’s post-firing squad tourism prospects: “Unless it’s Smith and Wesson,” he said, “I don’t think they are going to be racing to that controversy.”

So, maybe—just maybe—the one thing that can stop Utah’s firing squads before they start is the almighty dollar.

As motives go, not particularly inspiring, but let’s commiserate another day.


By:Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist and an Essayist for Parade Magazine; The National Memo, March 26,

March 27, 2015 Posted by | Death Penalty, Lethal Injections, Utah | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Relic Of Frontier Barbarism:” The Case Of Scott Panetti — And The True Meaning Of ‘Cruel And Unusual’

So what does “cruel and unusual” mean?

I once asked that of a law professor. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment, but I figured there had to be some technical definition I, as a layperson, was missing. I mean, from where I sit, it’s pretty “cruel and unusual” to execute someone, but to judge from the 1,392 executions of the last 38 years, that isn’t the case.

Scott Panetti almost became number 1,393 last week, but within hours of his scheduled lethal injection, he was reprieved by a federal judge. The court said it needs more time to consider the issues his case raises.

In a rational place, it would not be news that Panetti was not killed. In a rational place, they would understand that state-sanctioned execution is a relic of frontier barbarism that leaves us all wet with the blood of the damned. In a rational place, they would say there’s something especially repugnant about applying that grisly sanction to the mentally ill, like Panetti.

But Panetti doesn’t live in a rational place. He lives in America. Worse, he lives in Texas.

They love their executions in Rick Perry’s kingdom. Since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy group, that state has killed almost 520 people. That’s nearly five times more than the next bloodiest state, Oklahoma, with 111.

There is no question Panetti deserves punishment. In 1992, he shot his estranged wife’s parents to death as she and the couple’s daughter looked on. He held them both hostage before releasing them unharmed.

But there is also no question that Panetti, 56, suffers from severe mental illness. At his trial, in which he was somehow, bizarrely, allowed to represent himself, he wore a purple cowboy suit with a 10-gallon hat and summoned a personality he called “Sarge” to explain what happened on the fateful day. His witness list included 200 people. Among them: John F. Kennedy, the pope, Anne Bancroft and Jesus Christ.

The state contends that Panetti, who was off his meds at the time of the killing, is faking it. During a 2004 hearing, the county sheriff called him “the best actor there is.” In its most recent filings, Texas accuses him of “grossly exaggerating” his symptoms.

If it’s an act, it’s been going on a long time. His attorneys say Panetti was diagnosed with schizophrenia 14 years before the shootings and was hospitalized 13 times between 1978 and 1991. Now a court decides on his life or death.

It’s a pregnant decision in a country where, apparently, it isn’t “cruel and unusual” to preside, as Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton did, over the execution of a man so profoundly impaired that he saved the pie from his last meal to eat later. Or to let a man gasp and snort for almost two hours as a lethal injection very slowly killed him, as happened in Arizona. Or to set a man on fire, as has happened at least twice in Florida’s electric chair. Or to execute people for crimes committed when they were children. Or to send innocent people to death row. Or to choose whom to execute based on color of killer, color of victim, gender, geography and class.

So what, exactly, might be too cruel and unusual for us to allow? The professor could not answer. Which, of course, is an answer.

As flawed and broken as our system of death is, we continue to embrace the puritanical morality of eye for eye and blood for blood. Most of the western world has left this savagery behind, but we insist on it, leaving us isolated from our national peers, those nations whose values are most like ours, but looming large among the outlaw likes of Somalia and Iran.

Now we are debating whether to kill a man so addled he tried to subpoena Jesus. And that leads to a conclusion as painful as it is unavoidable:

What’s “cruel and unusual” is us.


By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, December 8, 2014

December 10, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Death Penalty, Mental Illness | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“In The Shadows”: There’s A Shady, All-Cash Economy For Lethal Injection Drugs

Facing a shortage of lethal injection drugs amid widespread opposition to the death penalty, Missouri has resorted to a controversial method of obtaining lethal drugs that resembles the illicit drug trade more than government policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is calling for Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to halt Wednesday’s execution of Michael Worthington due to concerns about the state’s method of obtaining lethal injection drugs.

That method entails the Missouri Department of Corrections’ (DOC) giving one of its officers $11,000 in cash and sending him to neighboring Oklahoma to purchase lethal injection drugs from a secret source, before hand-delivering the drugs to the Department, as the Missouri Times has reported.

St. Louis Public Radio reporter Chris McDaniel told the Reveal radio program he discovered Missouri’s Division of Adult Institutions Director Dave Dormire was taking more than $11,000 in cash each month to a Tulsa, Oklahoma compounding pharmacy called the Apothecary Shoppe that wasn’t licensed to sell drugs in Missouri. After word got out, Missouri turned to a different supplier, still shrouded in secrecy.

In February, DOC Director George Lombardi admitted a Department official pays for the state’s new execution drug pentobarbital with $11,000 in cash, before hand-delivering it from Oklahoma, reported The Missouri Times. The method of cash payment, avoiding a paper trail, is necessary because compounding pharmacies refuse to sell execution drugs to states unless they remain anonymous, Lombardi said.

Amid growing opposition to the death penalty, manufacturers of a key ingredient of lethal injections, sodium thiopental, stopped supplying that chemical to state governments by 2011, as Vox has reported. As a result, state governments like Missouri facing shortages of the chemical have had to develop their own modified injections with legally available drugs, and they are keeping the identities of their suppliers secret.

Because the Danish maker of pentobarbital is now refusing to supply that drug to corrections departments, Missouri resorts to compounding pharmacies to make their own versions of pentobarbital, the Associated Press reports.

A Missouri law states that the members of an “execution team,” shall remain confidential, including “individuals who prescribe, compound, prepare, or otherwise supply the chemicals for use in the lethal injection procedure.” Oklahoma, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas also have policies or laws that hide details about the content of lethal injection drugs, according to the Miami Herald.

Death Penalty Litigation Center attorney Jacob Luby compared the DOC official to a drug mule and expressed concern with the transport method because the pentobarbital drug needs to be kept frozen rather than at room temperature.

The ACLU has also questioned whether the purchased drugs are pure and if they’d been properly stored and transferred. “When execution teams are buying drugs with cash, we should question why they’ve taken to the shadows,” ACLU’s Tanya Greene wrote.

Amid the shortage of lethal injection drugs, Missouri switched to using pentobarbital in late 2013, and has since executed eight people with the drug without signs of distress, reports the Associated Press.

Rather than Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona, where the drug midazolam was used in combination with other drugs during recent botched executions, Missouri administers a single large dose of pentobarbital, which is typically used for treating seizures and euthanizing animals. 

The ACLU asserts Missouri cannot rightfully carry out an execution because it has not divulged information about its lethal injection drugs, the manufacturer, as well as guarantees that the drugs are Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved and administered by medically qualified executioners.

We reached out to the Missouri Department of Corrections for comment on the cash transfers. In response, the Department forwarded us a document outlining its lethal injection protocol (which can be accessed here), as well as its protocol for selecting an execution team (which can be accessed here).


By: Corey Adwar, Business Insider, August 5, 2014

August 6, 2014 Posted by | Death Penalty, Lethal Injections, Missouri | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Killing Experiments”: It’s Time For A Nationwide Moratorium On The Death Penalty

We still don’t know where the drugs came from.

We know they used midazolam and hydromorphone. We know the combination was experimental. And now we know that instead of working, the drugs took nearly two hours to kill Joseph Wood, as he snorted and gasped for air 660 times.

Within a couple hours of Mr. Wood’s death, the state of Arizona started damage control. Last night, Governor Jan Brewer called for an investigation into why the execution had taken so long, but she also released a statement saying: “by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer.”

That’s not what the reporters who were in the room have written. “It was very disturbing to watch… liked a fish on shore gulping for air,” Troy Haydentold The Arizona Republic.

One hour and 57 minutes is horrifically long, even when compared to the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett, who writhed in pain for 45 minutes while the state of Oklahoma struggled to kill him in May.

It’s time to ask the question: How is it possible that, in 2014, state after state is utterly failing at lethal injection? How can it be, given modern medicine, that it could take hours instead of minutes for states to kill someone?

The answer is that the death penalty simply has no place in this country. As method after method of state-sponsored killing has been deemed barbaric and archaic, states are left scrambling to invent new ways to execute.

Lethal injection started as a seemingly more humane alternative to the gas chamber, the electric chair, and firing squads. But as companies both in the U.S. and in Europe have refused to let the drugs they produce be used in executions, lethal injection has become what is essentially medical experimentation, with novel drugs and doses leading to botched execution after botched execution.

Lethal injection is not modern medicine. Executioners do not have proper training, leading to some prisoners being conscious but paralyzed as they slowly asphyxiate. States are fumbling to find drugs, concocting different combinations every time. In the case of Mr. Wood’s execution, the state used a two-drug combination that had been used only once before, when the state of Ohio took 25 minutes to kill Dennis McGuire.

And these killing experiments are being carried out in secrecy. The hours before Mr. Woods was strapped to the gurney were a frenzied attempt to figure out where the drugs came from before they could be shot into his vein. We still don’t know.

The greater problem underlying the horrific executions we have recently seen is not lethal injection or a matter of simply getting the drugs right. The execution of the innocent, the shameful role of race, mentally ill defendants, poor defense lawyering, and prosecutors who hide the truth — these are the problems that make the death penalty completely inappropriate in the modern world. Yet we continue to slowly pick off killing methods that are simply too barbaric to condone, but the truth is that there is no way for states — for our government — to kill someone that is in line with the type of country we want to be.

Today, my heart is with Jeanne Brown and all of those who loved Debra Dietz. My thoughts are with the executioners who will have to live with the horrific botch they carried out yesterday. This entire story is a tragic one, and it should push us to admit that the path to justice simply cannot include more gruesome violence.

It’s time for a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty.


Brian Stull, Senior staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project; The Huffington Post Blog, July 24, 2014

July 25, 2014 Posted by | Death Penalty, Executions, Lethal Injections | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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