Capital punishment in Nebraska

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Capital punishment is a legal penalty in the U.S. state of Nebraska.

Though the state unicameral legislature passed its repeal on May 2015 over governor Pete Ricketts' veto, the measure has not gone into force due to a veto referendum campaign that gathered enough signatures to suspend it. The death penalty thus remained legal in the state, until the electorate voted to reinstate it on November 8, 2016.[1][2]

Nebraska has currently 10 inmates on death row. All are convicted of either multiple murders or child murder.[3]


Starkweather's electrocution in 1959 was last execution in the state until 1994.

Historically, hanging was the method Nebraska used until the execution of Albert Prince in 1913. After Prince's execution, a new law was passed requiring the electric chair as the method of execution. Allen Grammer was the first person executed by electrocution in Nebraska (his partner in crime, Alson Cole would be executed 13 minutes later).[4]

The most famous execution ever carried out in the state of Nebraska is that of mass murderer Charles Starkweather, who killed 11 people in a two-month murder spree along with his teenage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate.

On February 8, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court declared in State v. Mata that electrocution constitutes a "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Nebraska Constitution.[5] The state legislature subsequently approved a bill to change its method of execution to lethal injection, which was signed by governor Dave Heineman on May 28, 2009. Nebraska was the last state to adopt lethal injection as its execution method,[6] but no execution by injection has yet been carried out.[7]

A total of 37 individuals have been executed in Nebraska, including three after 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia.

The last execution in the state was in 1997, when Robert Williams was electrocuted for the murder of Patricia McGarry and the subsequent rape and murder of Catherine Brooks. He also murdered a third woman in Minnesota.

Sodium thiopental controversy[edit]

A controversy happened in 2011 and 2012 when state officials imported sodium thiopental on two occasions from foreign suppliers, based in India and Switzerland. The furnishers said they discovered only after delivering the drugs that these would be used in judicial executions, prompting them to demand the return of the chemicals.[8][9] The state refused, and engaged in a legal battle with the FDA and the suppliers to keep them.[10][11][12] Since the drugs all expired in 2013 and became unusable, the state was unable to carry out any execution until it found another way to get the chemicals.[13][14]

2015 repeal attempt[edit]

Legislative vote[edit]

On May 20, 2015, the Nebraska State Legislature voted 32–15 on LB268 to abolish the death penalty in the state. The bill was introduced by senator Ernie Chambers, who had introduced similar pieces of legislation over prior decades.

Governor Pete Ricketts, serving his first year in office, vetoed the legislation on May 26, but the legislature voted 30–19 to override the governor's veto on May 27.[15]

Referendum petition[edit]

In the summer of 2015, an organization called "Nebraskans for the Death Penalty", gathered signatures on a ballot measure petition seeking to reinstate the death penalty in the state. Pete Ricketts and his father contributed one-third of the $913,000 raised by the group.

The group needed to submit 56,942 valid signatures (5% of all registered voters) in order to put a statewide referendum on the 2016 ballot, and 113,883 to suspend the statute until the vote (10% of registered voters). In September 2015, Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale reported that 120,479 signatures have been both certified and verified to his office, causing the bill to no longer be in force.[2]

Lawsuit against referendum[edit]

After the necessary signatures had been certified, death penalty opponents filed a lawsuit to cancel the referendum, arguing that Governor Ricketts should have been registered has a petition "sponsor" because he was "in actuality the primary initiating force".

In February 2016, Lancaster County District Judge Lori Maret dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the sponsor requirement apply only to those who assume statutory responsibility for the referendum. She also criticized the petitioner-proposed definition because it would "hinder, rather than facilitate, the people’s referendum rights".[16]

After this defeat, death penalty opponents began campaign for retaining the repeal bill, and changed their name to "Retain a Just Nebraska" instead of the earlier "Nebraskans for Public Safety".[17]

Ballot result[edit]

On November 8, 2016, Nebraska's people voted to repeal death penalty abolition by a 61-39 margin, thereby reinstating capital punishment in the state.[18]

Current legislation[edit]

Legal process[edit]

Nebraska is the only state where the sentence of death is decided by a three-judge panel, rather than by jury or a single judge. The jury, however, is the trier of facts for both the murder and the aggravating factor making the defendant eligible for the death penalty.

The panel includes the presiding judge of the trial and two others judges appointed for that purpose by the state's chief justice.[19] Death sentence must be unanimous, otherwise life imprisonment is imposed.

Clemency is decided by a three-member board comprising the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state.[20]

Death row inmates are housed at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (for males) and Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (for females). Executions have been carried out at Nebraska State Penitentiary (Lincoln) since 1903.

Capital offenses[edit]

Aggravating factors making murder punishable by death are the following:[21]

  1. The offender was previously convicted of another murder or a crime involving the use or threat of violence to the person, or has a substantial prior history of serious assaultive or terrorizing criminal activity;
  2. The murder was committed in an effort to conceal the commission of a crime, or to conceal the identity of the perpetrator of such crime;
  3. The murder was committed for hire, or for pecuniary gain, or the defendant hired another to commit the murder for the defendant;
  4. The murder was especially heinous, atrocious, cruel, or manifested exceptional depravity by ordinary standards of morality and intelligence;
  5. At the time the murder was committed, the offender also committed another murder;
  6. The offender knowingly created a great risk of death to at least several persons;
  7. The victim was a public servant having lawful custody of the offender or another in the lawful performance of his or her official duties and the offender knew or should have known that the victim was a public servant performing his or her official duties;
  8. The murder was committed knowingly to disrupt or hinder the lawful exercise of any governmental function or the enforcement of the laws; or
  9. The victim was a law enforcement officer engaged in the lawful performance of his or her official duties as a law enforcement officer and the offender knew or reasonably should have known that the victim was a law enforcement officer.

Executions after 1976[edit]

Three individuals convicted of murder have been executed by Nebraska since 1976. All were executed by the electric chair.

Executed person Date of execution Victims Under Governor
1 Harold Lamont "Wili" Otey September 2, 1994 Jane McManus Ben Nelson
2 John Joubert A July 17, 1996 Danny Eberle and Christopher Walden Ben Nelson
3 Robert E. Williams B [22][23] December 2, 1997 Catherine Brooks and Patricia McGarry Ben Nelson
A John Joubert was also tried and convicted of murdering Ricky Stetson in Portland, Maine. He received a life sentence in Maine.
B Robert E. Williams also murdered Virginia Rowe of Sioux Rapids, Minnesota.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b "Death penalty repeal officially on hold until 2016 election". Retrieved May 2, 2016. [permanent dead link]
  3. ^ "Nebraska's Death Row". Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Retrieved March 3, 2016. 
  4. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-02-05. Retrieved 2009-06-16. 
  5. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-04-13. Retrieved 2008-02-08. 
  6. ^ [1][dead link]
  7. ^ "Nebraska lacks drug for lethal injections, has no way to carry out executions". Retrieved March 3, 2016. 
  8. ^ Joe Duggan (30 November 2011). "Prison to keep execution drug". Omaha World Herald. Retrieved 7 February 2014. [permanent dead link]
  9. ^ Cory Matteson (29 November 2011). "Maker of lethal injection drug wants it back". Lincoln Journal-Star. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  10. ^ Margery A. Beck (20 April 2012). "Neb. refuses order to surrender execution drug". Associated Press. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  11. ^ "Nebraska: State Will Not Surrender Execution Drug". Associated Press. 21 April 2012. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  12. ^ Ed Howard (16 May 2012). "Bruning's death grip on sodium thiopental". McCook Daily Gazette. Retrieved 7 February 2014. "Other than the court's erroneous order, we are unaware of any evidence or reasons why the Department of Correctional Services should be required to return any thiopental in its possession," Bruning told the FDA. 
  13. ^ Joe Duggan (5 February 2014). "Nebraska lacks drug for lethal injections, has no way to carry out executions". Omaha World Herald. Retrieved 7 February 2014. Nebraska prison officials have not replaced a lethal injection drug that expired late last year, meaning the state currently has no way to carry out an execution. [permanent dead link]
  14. ^ Kevin O'Hanlon (30 April 2013). "Portion of Nebraska's supply of lethal injection drug set to expire". Lincoln Journal-Star. Retrieved 7 February 2014. 
  15. ^ Duggan, Joe; Cooper, Todd (May 27, 2015). "Nebraska senators override governor's veto, repeal death penalty". Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved May 27, 2015. 
  16. ^ "Judge dismisses suit challenging death-penalty question going to voters". Retrieved March 3, 2016. 
  17. ^ "Nebraska death penalty foes to launch statewide campaign". Retrieved March 3, 2016. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ "2014 Nebraska Revised Statutes - Chapter 29 - CRIMINAL PROCEDURE - 29-2521 - Sentencing determination proceeding.". Retrieved March 3, 2016. 
  20. ^ "Section IV-13, Board of parole; members; powers; reprieves; proceedings; power to pardon; limitations.". Retrieved March 3, 2016. 
  21. ^ "2014 Nebraska Revised Statutes - Chapter 29 - CRIMINAL PROCEDURE - 29-2523 - Aggravating and mitigating circumstances.". Retrieved March 3, 2016. 
  22. ^ Inmate Details: 31861 -- Robert Williams. Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. Retrieved on 2007-08-17.
  23. ^ a b Matthew Waite (3 December 1997). "Williams marks state's third electrocution". Daily Nebraskan. Archived from the original on 27 October 2007. Retrieved 4 February 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Baldus, D.C. et al. (2001). The disposition of Nebraska capital and non-capital homicide cases (1973-1999): a legal and empirical analysis. Lincoln, Neb.: Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice.

External links[edit]