LINCOLN — A new analysis by opponents of the death penalty indicates that capital punishment cases in Nebraska are appealed nearly five times more and take more than twice as long to litigate as cases in which life in prison is the maximum sentence.
The study, its author said Friday, is intended to provide “hard evidence” that the added expense and extra court time involving death penalty cases is not worth it because it has resulted in only three executions in 40 years.
“Capital punishment is a bloated government program that has clogged our courts, delayed justice for victims' families and devoured millions of crime-fighting dollars,” stated the report, authored by Alan Peterson, a Lincoln attorney who has defended death-row inmates.
A proponent of the death penalty, meanwhile, said that the additional cost and litigation involving death cases is worth it because the most heinous murderers deserve the ultimate punishment.
“Justice should not be dictated by cost,” said State Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk. “A lot of things we do (in government) cost too much.”
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh added that if the death penalty was repealed, it would just shift more court appeals to the new maximum sentence, life in prison without parole.
The study comes as the Nebraska Legislature prepares Monday to debate a bill to repeal the death penalty.
Legislative Bill 543 was introduced by State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a leading death-penalty opponent.
Capital punishment is nearly an annual issue for the State Legislature but hasn't gotten to a vote for several years.
Nebraska is one of 32 states that have a death penalty. In the past six years, however, six states have repealed capital punishment.
Peterson, who is a registered lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he undertook the study to refute the notion that murder cases that don't involve the death penalty require just as much time and effort as cases that do.
In cases where life in prison was the maximum punishment, the study found that the average number of appeals was 1.64 and it took an average of 5.8 years to resolve all appeals.
That compares to an average of 7.76 appeals per death penalty case and an average appeals time of 13.3 years. Those figures came from capital punishment cases dating back to 1973, when the state reinstituted the death penalty. Peterson said that comparable statistics for life sentence cases extend back to 1982.
A spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said the study had an inaccurate number of appeals: The report said cases were closed on two murderers convicted of life in prison when in fact they still have appeals pending. Shannon Kingery, the spokeswoman, also criticized a contributor to the report, Lincoln defense attorney Jerry Soucie, for filing “multiple meritless appeals” in death penalty cases and now declaring there are too many.
“Nebraskans deserve an honest debate about the death penalty, not the barrage of misinformation and distortions offered in the past or present by groups like the ACLU,” Kingery said, adding that cost of capital case appeals account is 1 percent or less of the appeals handled by the office.
In response, Soucie said that he is ethically obliged, as a defense attorney, to pursue all legal appeals on behalf of those convicted to death. To do otherwise, he said, would prolong a death penalty case by affording a new appeal: ineffective counsel.
Peterson could not be reached immediately to respond to the inaccuracies. The report states that the information on appeals by inmates came from court records and reports filed by county attorneys to the state on homicide cases.
Death-penalty cases offer at least 44 more avenues for appeal, the report stated. They also require three “trials” — one to determine guilt; one to prove if the crime qualifies for the death penalty because of aggravating circumstances, such as an especially heinous slaying; and a third to determine if death should be the sentence.
Peterson noted that the study did not look at federal court appeals afforded to those convicted to die, which would add several more appeals and years in court.
Such delays, he said, are an emotional burden for victims' families and siphon resources that could be used better elsewhere to solve crime.
In 2009, Nebraska changed its method of execution from the electric chair to lethal injection, which has opened up a whole new family of appeals. Executions in the state are on hold as a federal court weighs whether Nebraska has to surrender its supply of sodium thiopental, one of the three drugs used in an execution.
Eleven men now sit on Nebraska death row. Carey Dean Moore, convicted of murdering two Omaha taxi cab drivers, has been there the longest: 34 years.
Since 1973, the study said, about 1,125 people have been charged with murder in Nebraska, about 260 have been convicted of first-degree murder, and 33 have been sentenced to die.
In only about 7 percent of the murder cases between 1973 and 2007 was capital punishment sought, and of those, less than a third result in a death sentence.
Of all murders in Nebraska in that time period, less than 1 percent result in an execution, the study said.
Contact the writer: