National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

The Bishops’ Point Man in Nebraska

BY Jim Cunningham

June 13-19, 1999 Issue | Posted 6/13/99 at 2:00 PM


Gov. Mike Johanns' recent veto of a moratorium on the death penalty was another chapter in the ongoing debate over capital punishment in the United States.

The death penalty has become increasingly under scrutiny since Pope John Paul II asked for an end to executions as part of the jubilee year 2000. Jay Dunlap of Register Radio News spoke to Jim Cunningham, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, about the governor's veto.

Jay Dunlap: How could a state like Nebraska with a reputation for being “conservative” end up taking the lead to stop executions, at least for a while?

Jim Cunningham: The bill itself, that was advanced to the legislative floor from the judiciary committee, was not about repealing the death penalty. It actually had two parts to it. The first part was to instruct the Nebraska State Crime Commission to undertake a thorough review and analysis of all the criminal homicide cases since our current death penalty law went into effect in 1973, [and] to study those cases from the perspective of the facts, such things as race, gender, religious preference and economic status of the defendant and of the victim, the types of charges filed, the sentences given out as a result of the judicial proceedings.

The second part was that there would be no executions carried out during a two-year period of the study.

It did not propose to interfere with any of the judicial proceedings already under way. It did not prohibit the filing of charges against any person suspected of first-degree murder.

It didn't affect the judicial process at all, except for telling the judiciary that no execution could be scheduled during that particular period, so that the study could [look] at the fairness of how the death penalty is applied in Nebraska.

From that perspective there were those, most notably the chairman of the judiciary committee, who has made it clear that he does feel the death penalty is appropriate in certain circumstances, but was interested in the issue of fairness and justice and proportionality of sentencing. He was a very strong advocate for this particular proposal and joined forces with one legislator who, year in and year out, has been the most vigorous advocate for seeking to have Nebraska repeal the death penalty.

Those two strong … influential senators, getting together on this particular proposal, was very significant.

The other thing that you can't overlook of course is that we are unique in our legislative process. … We have only one house and we are nonpartisan in our organization. We have 49 legislators who are very independent in their approach to legislation. The process is such that if a committee is strongly behind a particular bill and there are strong forces in support of it, that type of legislation stands a pretty good chance of passing.

You had a combination, I think, of senators who are opposed to Nebraska having capital punishment and some other senators who, while they might not oppose capital punishment, were struck by the nature of the proposal in terms of analyzing and studying the types of criminal homicide convictions and sentences that we've had in Nebraska since 1973.

Certainly that would be very helpful information. I understand that the study will go ahead even though the governor vetoed the moratorium. Is that correct?

That's correct. The underlying legislation, or the exact bill that proposed the two-part approach, that is the moratorium and the study, was passed. It takes 25 votes to pass a bill. This bill passed with 27 votes. And it takes 30 votes to override a governor's veto, so obviously, even at the last stage of action by the Legislature, there were signs that this bill would be in trouble if it was vetoed and in fact, it was.

However, accompanying the bill, there is an appropriations measure. The bill itself was LB 76.

There was the accompanying appropriations measure, LB 76A, which appropriated $160,000 dollars for the upcoming fiscal year, providing funding to the commission on law enforcement and criminal justice to underwrite the costs of the study.

That bill was also vetoed but the , on a vote of 43–0, over-rode that veto, which means that it's a valid appropriation of $160,000 to the commission.

Then the legislature established a very strong legislative record that their intention behind this appropriation is that it would be used for the study that was originally called for in the underlying bill.

And, subsequent to that override by the legislature, the governor did say that he would support the idea of the commission using the Legislature's appropriation for the purpose that the articulated. So, the study will proceed and it will be carried out in the fashion that the legislature wished it to be carried out.

Jay Dunlap is a correspondent with Register Radio News.