Murder Victims' Families Look To End Death Penalty, Others Disagree

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Wednesday murder victims’ families gathered in Lincoln to send a message to Nebraska lawmakers. They showed up to support a bill that would repeal the death penalty. Many people who lost loved ones to murder said they do not support the penalty.

Those who showed up said the death penalty worsens their suffering, and also costs money. They said it is a very long process, and often it is years filled with appeals. They said those appeals force them to relive tough moments over and over again, and in addition, cost tax payer dollars.

Nebraska hasn’t executed anyone on death row in more than 20 years. Even longer than that, though, is the time Miriam Kelle has waited to see Michael Ryan executed. Ryan killed her brother in 1984.

“My kids were 3 and 1 at the time…and now I have grandkids that are 3 and 1,” she explained. She has waited 30 years, but Ryan is still sitting in prison.

In total, 11 men currently sit on Nebraska’s Death Row. Carey Moore has sat there the longest: 34 years. He killed two Omaha cab drivers in 1980. It is that amount of time – decades – that victims’ families said is not worth it.

That is why dozens showed up to the Capitol Wednesday, to fight for a repeal of the death penalty.

“If we had been given a sentence of life, without the possibility of parole, we would have left the legal system behind 30 years ago...and had time to focus our energy on our family, our grief and not this never-ending fight for justice,” Kelle said.

This issue also impacts the Omaha Metro. Spree killer, Nikko Jenkins, will soon appear before a 3 judge-panel. The panel will make a decision to give him life in prison, or the death penalty. Nikko Jenkins confessed to killing four people in August 2013.

Curtis Bradford was one of the victims. His mother told WOWT 6 News she fully supports the death penalty.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine testified in support of the death penalty and against the bill Wednesday. He said it has a place in Nebraska and is needed to differentiate case from case, based on what each crime deserves.

The bill has enough support to advance out of committee, but its prospects in the full Legislature are uncertain. Even though Republicans gained seats in the November election, several new GOP senators have indicated that they support the bill. Senators would likely have to override a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has said he supports the death penalty.

The repeal measure was introduced by longtime Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has fought for nearly four decades to end capital punishment. His death penalty bill passed out of the Legislature once, in 1979, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charles Thone.

Chambers told the Judiciary Committee about his experiences with several death-row inmates minutes before they were executed, including serial killer John Joubert, who was electrocuted in 1996. Most politicians who support capital punishment have never seen one firsthand, he said.

"This bill may not pass, but as long as I'm in this Legislature, I'm going to try to save this state from itself," Chambers said. "I'm going to try to get rid of the barbarity that I witnessed."

Nebraska has sentenced 33 offenders to death since 1973, and of those inmates, three have been executed. The last was Robert E. Williams, who was electrocuted in 1997. Williams confessed to killing three women and trying to kill a fourth during a three-day rampage in 1977 that crossed into three states.

Murder is the only crime that can draw the death penalty in the state, and Nebraska has 11 men currently sitting on death row. Some of them were convicted of sexual assaults, robberies or torturing victims during the murders.

Lawmakers last debated the death penalty in 2013, when an attempt to repeal it failed because of a legislative filibuster.

Senators who support the death penalty say Nebraska's system affords inmates numerous chances to appeal their sentences, often over decades. They also contend that improved DNA identification and evidence-gathering have reduced the chances of the state executing an innocent person.

Nebraska lost its only approved method to carry out executions when its supply of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic required under the department's rules, expired in December 2013. The drug is no longer produced in the United States, and European Union countries are prohibited from selling the drug for use in capital punishment.

The state Department of Correctional Services has not obtained a new supply of the drug, spokesman James Foster said Wednesday.