LINCOLN — State lawmakers fell far short of advancing a bill to repeal the death penalty on Thursday, with only 17 of the 49 senators supporting repeal.
Much of the sometimes contentious debate centered on whether repealing capital punishment would ignore the will of Nebraska voters, who voted in 2016 to overturn the Legislature’s repeal of the death penalty.
State Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, the Legislature’s youngest member, said repealing capital punishment now would show “flagrant disregard” for the vote, which restored the death penalty by 61% to 39%.
Others disagreed, including Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has led the fight to repeal the death penalty during his four-decade tenure in the Legislature. LB 44 was his latest bill to eliminate the death penalty.
Chambers, the Legislature’s oldest senator, said matters like death should not be subject to a public vote, quoting from the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the states’ capital punishment policies then in effect. Many states then amended their policies and reinstated the death penalty, including Nebraska, which is one of 30 states that still have the punishment.
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Crime: 2008 murders of 11-year-old Thomas Hunter and 57-year-old Shirlee Sherman, and 2013 murders of 65-year-old Dr. Roger Brumback and 65-year-old Mary Brumback.
JOHN L. LOTTER
Crime: 1993 murders of Teena Brandon, 21, Lisa Lambert, 24, and Phillip DeVine, 22, in a farmhouse near Humboldt; the story of the transgender Brandon was fictionalized in the film “Boys Don’t Cry.”
RAYMOND MATA JR.
Crime: Killing and dismembering 3-year-old Adam Gomez of Scottsbluff in 1999 and feeding some of his remains to a dog.
ARTHUR L. GALES
Crime: raping and strangling 13-year-old Latara Chandler and drowning her 7-year-old brother, Tramar, in Omaha in 2000.
Crime: his role in the slayings of five people during a 2002 bank robbery attempt in Norfolk; he shot and killed bank employees Jo Mausbach and Samuel Sun and customer Evonne Tuttle.
Crime: the Norfolk bank robbery; he shot and killed Lola Elwood, a bank employee.
ERICK F. VELA
Crime: the Norfolk bank robbery; he shot and killed Lisa Bryant, a bank employee.
Crime: kidnapping, raping and murdering Heather Guerrero, a 15-year-old Gering newspaper carrier, in 2003.
ROY L. ELLIS
Crime: the 2005 abduction and bludgeoning death of 12-year-old Amber Harris of Omaha.
MARCO E. TORRES JR.
Crime: the 2007 execution-style shooting deaths of two Grand Island men, Timothy Donohue and Edward Hall.
Crime: four murders during a 2013 killing spree in Omaha.
Crime: the 2017 strangling death of his cellmate, Terry Berry, a 22-year-old inmate who was about to be released from the Tecumseh State Prison.
The senator said that many heinous murders do not result in the death penalty and that every other developed country in the world has banned its use.
“The death penalty is degrading,” he said, “and its very existence runs against what this country supposedly stands for.”
Chambers — who has only the 2019 and 2020 sessions to serve before he’s term-limited — said he does not believe in miracles and doubted that his effort to repeal capital punishment would be successful this year.
Debate on the measure delved into biblical teachings about killing, the evolving position of the Roman Catholic Church and the role of Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family in financing the campaign that restored capital punishment.
Some senators blamed the death penalty for the $28 million court judgment against Gage County, where six innocent people were wrongfully convicted in connection with a murder there after being threatened with the death penalty. Some gave false testimony, and others agreed to falsely plead guilty — but DNA evidence later tied the slaying to an Oklahoma man.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, said if it was any other state program, it would have been repealed long ago because it is so ineffective and so randomly imposed. He called it “death by incarceration” because inmates sit for 25 years or longer before their appeals are exhausted.
Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha said senators can’t consider themselves “pro-life” and support the death penalty. But Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln said that she’s “pro-innocent life” and that heinous crimes deserve the ultimate penalty.
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Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said that if senators really respected the “will of the people,” they would join him in protest over the Ricketts administration’s slow progress in implementing another voter-approved measure, the one to expand Medicaid.
Debate became heated at times. One issue was whether conservatives in the body were forcing a vote on LB 44 so they could get lawmakers to record their support or opposition and use that in future elections. After the 2015 vote to repeal, three death penalty opponents lost reelection bids, in part because of their votes.
One death penalty foe, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, said the vote was taken Thursday in recognition of Chambers’ long effort to do away with capital punishment. This year might be Chambers’ last chance to get a vote on the issue, she said.
The vote was 25-17 against advancing the bill, with seven senators either absent or present and not voting. LB 44 is not likely to return to the agenda this year, but Chambers could introduce another repeal bill in 2020.
Chambers, who is a master of using legislative rules to block legislation, pledged to “get even” with senators who opposed him during the rest of the 2019 session. The session ends in early June.
Nebraska carried out its first execution in 21 years and its first by lethal injection on Aug. 14. Carey Dean Moore, 60, decided to drop all appeals of his death sentence for the 1979 killings of Omaha cabdrivers Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland.
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Ernie Chambers picketed a dinner on July 15, 1963, for then-Postmaster John Munnelly at a downtown Omaha hotel. He wore a sign that says "I spoke against discrimination in the Omaha post office and was fired." Chambers had been fired from his job as a distribution clerk earlier that year for alleged insubordination. Chambers maintained that he was fired because he complained about a white supervisor who had called him "boy."
Civil rights activist Ernie Chambers on Dec. 7, 1967 with Dr. A. Stanley Trickett, chairman of the Omaha University history department.
Ernie Chambers outside of the Crime Commission office. He appeared before the Citizens Crime Commission law and order committee in August 1967. Mayor A.V. Sorenson requested him to make a "grass roots appraisal" of Omaha's model cities application.
Ernie Chambers at Horace Mann Junior High on March 5, 1968. Students at the school broke windows and started a small grass fire after George Wallace spoke the night before and a teen was shot as Omaha's 1968 race riot began. The students calmed down after Chambers showed up and told them to disperse. "You are putting on a show for the crackers," Chambers told the students, according to an article at the time. "They are are going to make it look like you are a bunch of thugs. Don't let them make a show out of you."
Civil rights activist Ernie Chambers at a State Board of Education Meeting, April 11, 1969.
Ernie Chambers is handcuffed and booked in the central police station, June 29, 1969. Chambers was arrested on suspicion of carrying a concealed weapon. The arrest came during unrest in north Omaha following the shooting of a 14-year-old black girl by a white police officer. Chambers was vocal in calling for criminal charges against the officer, who was eventually cleared of wrongdoing and returned to the force. The weapons charge against Chambers was dismissed 10 months after this photo.
Ernie Chambers accepts congratulations outside headquarters in 1970 after defeating George W. Althouse to become the only African American senator in the 1971 Legislature.
Ernie Chambers in December 1970.
David Rice, hands in pockets, and Pitmon Foxall, arms folded, wait for an elevator in the police station lobby after Rice surrendered on Aug. 27, 1970. Ernie Chambers is in the background in a dark sleeveless shirt. David Rice (now known as Mondo we Langa) and Edward Poindexter were charged and convicted of the murder of Omaha Police Officer Larry Minard. Minard died when a suitcase bomb containing dynamite exploded in a North Omaha home on Aug. 17, 1970.
Eddie Chambers at microphone, with with Sen. & Mrs. Chambers looking on at Chamber's 34th birthday celebration, July 1, 1971.
Civil rights activist Ernie Chambers and Dan Goodwin on Aug. 27, 1971. Chambers is holding sign that reads "Joe Hart does not support this community." Hart was president of the Omaha school board.
Sen. Ernie Chambers speaks to students at Benson High School on Nov. 3, 1974.
Ernie Chambers looks on as the Rev. Marian Jones reads vows to Joe Jordan and JoAnn Gordon. The couple got married at the forth annual Stone Soul Picnic at Carter Lake Park on July 4, 1974.
A 1975 caricature of Ernie Chambers by Jim Horan.
Ernie Chambers with his son David, then age 4, on Oct. 10, 1975.
Ernie Chambers talks to the media on Aug. 22, 1977, after calling a meeting to discuss what he saw as a series of excessive force incidents involving Omaha police. The gathering site was the home of one of those who said he was a victim, at 48th and Q Streets.
Ernie Chambers in May 1979. He told The World-Herald his corn-rowed hairstyle was cooler and easier to manage during hot weather than his familiar afro.
Ernie Chambers speaks to students at Ord Elementary School on "Law Day", May 1, 1981.
Ernie Chambers in 1981 wearing a "Stop North Omaha Freeway" shirt.
Ernie Chambers with Mayor Mike Boyle on July 23, 1981.
Sen. Ernie Chambers speaks to a crowd on the Douglas County Courthouse steps on May 1, 1982. He carried a sign that said "Injustice and Racism Reign in the U.S."
Sen. Ernie Chambers dresses like a Nebraska football player on May 23, 1983, in the Legislature to stress a point about how they should be paid as state employees.
NE Senator Ernie Chambers with an Uzi sub-machine gun replica that he used in a 1986 debate on the legislative floor about putting a guarantee of the right to bear arms in the Nebraska Constitution.
Civil rights activist Senator Ernie Chambers filibustered the legislature in May 1987. He wore a sign on his shirt that said "Re: LB775 Members of the Legislature: Just Say "NO!" to ConAgra's Corporate Terrorism (But lickspittles will not)"
Ernie Chambers carries a sign in front of Central Police Headquarters on Oct. 22, 1987, that read "Killing is not valorous - to reward it is immoral". He was protesting the presentation of the Medal of Valor to Police Officer Kris Jacobson. Jacobson killed Kevin Watson, who had grabbed another officer's revolver in a struggle.
Ernie Chambers with New Alliance presidential candidate Lenora Fulani on Sept. 15, 1988.
Ernie Chambers pushes his stalled car out of a flooded intersection in Lincoln on Sept. 8, 1989. He loaned the car to his secretary who became stranded after 2-4 inches of rain fell in a three hour period.
Ernice Chambers at his desk on April 7, 1989, with his Repelican, an inflated toy with an elephant's trunk.
Sen. Ernie Chambers at his desk with a TRMN8TR sign on June 8, 1995.
Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers listens to Chris Beutler on the floor of the Legislature, Jan. 14, 2002.
Sen. Ernie Chambers jokes with Sen. Matt Connealy about his sign declaring him the dean of the legislature, on April 19, 2002.
Sen. Ernie Chambers lifts weights in January 2004 in his State Capitol office. Chambers said he lifts whenever he can between committee hearings and floor debate. It helps keeps his body as sharp as his mind, he said.
Sen. Ernie Chambers takes a break from weight lifting in his State Capitol office in January 2004.
Ernie Chambers speaks during a January 2004 rally held by the north Omaha community on the steps of the Douglas County courthouse to protest the grand jury's descision in the Jerad Kruse case. Kruse was an Omaha police officer who shot and killed George Bibins after a stolen vehicle pursuit.
Sen. Ernie Chambers gets a nose squeeze on April 11, 2006, from Jacentha Scarlock, 5, the grand-niece of his legislative aide.
Sen. Ernie Chambers on April 9, 2007, at the Legislature.
Sen. Ernie Chambers testifies on an education bill in 2007 as superintendents John Mackiel of Omaha Public Schools and Chuck Chevalier of South Sarpy Community Schools listen.
A death penalty repeal bill introduced by Sen. Ernie Chambers is debated in March 2008.
Sen. Ernie Chambers walks through his outer office on April 17, 2008, the final day of the Legislature for the 2007-08 year.
Chairperson Sen. Brad Ashford, left, and Sen. Ernie Chambers speak quietly before a Judiciary Committee Hearing in Lincoln Nov. 17, 2008.
Sen. Ernie Chambers packs nearly four decades of memories into boxes on Jan. 5, 2009, at the State Capitol.
Ernie Chambers, vacating his office due to term limits, packs nearly four decades of memories into boxes on Jan. 5, 2009.
Ernie Chambers protests in June 2012 at the Douglas County Courthouse after an independent labor arbitrator ruled to reinstate Omaha officer Jackie Dolinsky. The officer was involved in the controversial arrest of Robert Wagner outside the Creighton University Medical Center.
Ernie Chambers is greeted on election night 2012 by Cheryl Weston and Bill Anderson. People gathered to watch election returns and cheer on Chambers on Nov. 6, 2012.
Flanked by Gannie Clark, left, and Marilyn Johnson, right, Ernie speaks at a re-election rally at 16th and Lothrop Streets on Nov. 2, 2012.
Ernie Chambers speaks at a re-election rally at 16th and Lothrop Streets on Nov. 2, 2012.
Sen. Ernie Chambers talks with his daughter Gayla Chambers as the Nebraska Legislature convenes, Jan. 9, 2013.
Sen. Ernie Chambers talks with fellow Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh on March 6, 2013, at the Capitol.
Sen. Ernie Chambers talks with assistant sergeant-at-arms Lois Vandeventer as Chambers returns to the Nebraska Legislature on Jan. 9, 2013. "We were friends when he was here before the term limits." Vandeventer said, adding, "I'm glad to have him back. We were friends, and I missed him."
Sen. Ernie Chambers bumps elbows with Sen. Rick Kolowski after the Legislature voted to override the Governor's veto of the death penalty repeal bill on May 27, 2015.
Sen. Ernie Chambers follows the vote on his bill abolishing the death penalty, on May 20, 2015, in Lincoln.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers poses in October 2016 with the mountain lion license plate created after he sponsored legislation.
Sen. Ernie Chambers raises a hand to another senator while asking for a simple yes or no answer at the Nebraska State Capitol on May 18, 2017.
Sen. Ernie Chambers looks on during the final day of the 105th Nebraska Legislative session, April 18, 2018, at the Nebraska State Capitol.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha makes comments during a hearing about Legislative Bill 110, Nebraska's medical cannabis bill, on Jan. 25, 2019, at the State Capitol in Lincoln.