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About The daily Nebraskan. ([Lincoln, Neb.) 1901-current | View Entire Issue (Jan. 14, 1999)
Politics play large role
in state execution laws
DEATH from page 1
Mowbray said polls show as
much as 80 percent support for the
death penalty in Nebraska,
although support drops when peo
ple are asked if they would support
life sentences instead.
Nationwide, executions have
risen steadily since the Supreme
Court’s 1976 decision. One person
was executed in 1981,21 were exe
cuted in 1984 and 23 were executed
in 1990. In 1997, 74 people were
executed, and 68 were executed in
Despite the recent executions
and strong support for the death
penalty, policy-makers have proved
willing to fine-tune capital punish
ment law to make the practice more
fair and humane, said Carter Van
Pelt, state coordinator for
Nebraskans Against the Death
For example, the 1998
Nebraska Legislature passed a law
banning the execution of mentally
retarded persons. Policy-makers
and courts also have shown concern
for preventing racial discrimination
in sentencing and ensuring ade
quate legal representation, Van Pelt
“If you’re talking about trends
relative to the death penalty, even in
the Legislature, people are general
ly pro-death penalty, but open to
proposing changes around the pro
death penalty position,” he said.
In this year’s Legislature, Sen.
Kermit Brashear of Omaha intro
duced a bill to change the method
of execution from electrocution to
Nebraska is one of 10 states that
use electrocution, and one of four
whose exclusive means of execu
tion is, electrocution. Thirty-four
states use lethal injection. _
Lacey said more states have
chosen lethal injection because
people perceive it to be more
Some recent electrocution
deaths have been botched. For
example, in some cases, the first
jolt of electricity failed to kill the
victim, causing several minutes of
agony before another jolt could be
administered. In other cases, the
victim’s clothes or body caught
However, deaths by lethal injec
tion have not always gone smoothly
either. In some cases, executioners
have spent more than 45 minutes
probing for a suitable vein.
Mowbray said death penalty
opponents are ambivalent about
Brashear’s bill, fearing that by mak
ing execution appear more humane,
the state may also make it more
acceptable to the public.
“It’s a dilemma for opponents of
the death penalty,” he said. “There’s
no question electrocution is a vio
lent way to die and is a very heinous
method of punishment.” .
But if the process is sanitized,
he said, “execution becomes just
like a walk in the park.”
Van Pelt said Nebraskans
Against the Death Penalty is neutral
on Brashear’s bill.
In the Reeves case, another con
troversial issue was raised when the
Nebraska Board of Pardons, on a 2
1 vote, refused to grant Reeves a
hearing. The board then voted 3-0
to deny Reeves clemency.
Although a Board of Pardons
hearing was standard practice for
most of the state’s history, it now
has been denied to three consecu
tive death-row inmates.
Otey received a hearing, but
Joubert, Williams and Reeves were
denied. Mowbray said he was not
aware of any death-row inmates
before Joubert who were denied a
Board of Pardons hearing.
Even Starkweather, the state’s
most notorious serial killer, was
granted a hearing.
Gov. Mike Johanns, a member
of the Board of Pardons, said the
Board’s purpose was not to serve as
an appellate court. He said no new
arguments were presented that
should have compelled the board to
grant a hearing.
Van Pelt said his organization
was concerned about this trend.
Traditionally, the Board of Pardons
hearing represented a symbolic
occasion that allowed the person
sentenced to death to face those
who would grant him clemency or
make sure his execution was car
In some cases, Mowbray said, a
death-row inmate was granted
clemency after such a hearing.
But Lacey said the board’s func
tion is essentially political rather
than legal because it is placed in the
executive branch, not the judicial
After the Board of Pardon’s
denial of clemency, Lacey said
Reeves’ case had received due
“I think clemency is truly a
political act, and it’s up to the peo
ple who have that power to use it as
i » * r - 'f~-: .-/> 7, y '
Suit alleges Board
denied Lamms’ rights
HEARING from page 1
Hutchinson said the victims’ bill
of rights in Nebraska’s constitution
guarantees that families of victims
have a chance for input at every step
of the justice process.
But Assistant Attorney General
Kurt Brown, who represented the
state, argued that the Board of
Pardons was not obligated to hear the
“There is no legislation to enforce
the victims’ bill of rights,” Brown
said. “So this court lacks jurisdic
Reeves, 42, was sentenced to
death 18 years ago for the 1980 deaths
of Vicki Lamm and Janet Mesner.
The two women were killed at the
Quaker meeting house in Lincoln
where Mesner lived as a caretaker.
Reeves, an Omaha Indian adopted
at the age of 3, grew up with Mesner
in Central City.
With circumstantial evidence of
sexual assault found at the scene,
Reeves was convicted of two counts
of felony murder.
Since the crimes, members of
both the Mesner and Lamm families
have been lobbying to have Reeves’
sentence commuted to life in prison.
Some members of Vicki Lamm’s
family have supported execution, but
others said Reeves’ execution is not
what Vicki would have wanted.
“It is critically important to the
Lamms that the world knows who
Vicki was,” Hutchinson said.
There also is an appeal pending in
the Nebraska Supreme Court. The
appeal argues that, under Nebraska’s
newly adopted equal protection
clause, Reeves was discriminated
against when he was sentenced to
This equal protection claim was
rejected by a Lancaster County
.>»■;■= • - .p s -r-v;
We are asking
p the court to
District Court judge last week.
The claim also alleges that the
electric chair is cruel and unusual pun
The Supreme Court issued the stay
and revoked Reeves’ death warrant to
consider this claim and the victims’
“Substantively, I don’t think either
claim is valid,” said Brown, the state’s
“The state doesn’t go out and pick
who is going to commit murder.”
Brown said counting the minori
ties that are executed is an inappropri
ate way to measure discrimination.
But with the stay, Hutchinson said,
the court will have time to consider the
merits of both cases.
Though some may view the efforts
of the Lamm and Mesner families as
an attempt to excuse the crime,
Hutchinson said they have been work
ing to honor the memories of Vicki
“Randy has never once for a
moment forgotten what he did.
“But he knows his death won’t
bring these two beautiful women back.
“He always wanted them to be
honored by who they were in life.”
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