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Across the Region: May 11


Unusual coalition seeks to ban death penalty

There’s not a lot of sympathy for the 11 men on death row in Nebraska, but spurred by frustration about the growing difficulty and cost of carrying out executions, lawmakers are considering eliminating the death penalty.

If the Legislature outlaws capital punishment, Nebraska would become the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty. Capital punishment opponents are optimistic following an initial vote this spring to repeal the law but acknowledge they still face a challenge as opponents led by the governor scramble to block the change.

An unusual coalition of Democrats and Republicans has formed behind the repeal effort.

While Democrats cite racial disparities and the possibility of errors, Republicans point to the legal hurdles that have prevented the state from executing anyone. Nebraska’s last execution was in 1997.

“You always want to feel as a legislator that you’re sticking up for the victims,” said Republican Sen. Colby Coash, who said the death penalty wastes tax money and makes a false promise to victims’ families. “I don’t speak for the victims, but how is it justice if a state imposes a sentence that it’s never going to carry out?”

The last conservative state to abolish the death penalty was North Dakota in 1973. In the past six years, four more liberal states have ended capital punishment: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012 and Maryland in 2013. Thirty-two states still have death penalty laws.

Some legal experts believe a repeal in Nebraska could prompt other states to consider the move, especially those that rarely execute people.

“If New Hampshire wanted to abolish the death penalty, Nebraska could set a terrific precedent,” said Frank Zimring, a law professor and death penalty expert at the University of California, Berkeley. “But it probably wouldn’t work in Texas or Missouri.”

Nebraska’s debate shows the topic no longer is a “third rail” issue among conservatives, Zimring said.

Efforts in Nebraska to carry out executions have run into repeated roadblocks. In 2008, a state Supreme Court ruling outlawed the electric chair. Then, after Nebraska switched to lethal injections, the slow process of inmate appeals prevented executions for so long that the state’s supply of sodium thiopental expired and officials couldn’t restock its reserve.

Since Nebraska reinstated the death penalty in 1973, only four inmates have been executed. One inmate has been on death row for 35 years.

Capital punishment opponents pointed to an ACLU-sponsored study this year by Seattle University that found capital cases in Washington state cost about $1 million more than first-degree murder cases where prosecutors didn’t seek the death penalty.

In March, the Legislature voted 30-13 to repeal the death penalty, but lawmakers must vote on the issue twice more and Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has promised a veto. The 30 votes are enough to overcome a veto, but 33 votes are required to defeat a filibuster that could kill the bill.

Death penalty supporters said they’ll do whatever they can to retain capital punishment and execute those on death row.

“I wouldn’t expect the debate on this to be short,” said Republican Sen. Beau McCoy, who supports the death penalty. “If it were to get that far [to a veto override], I think you’ll see some high-stakes drama the likes of which hasn’t been seen in this building in quite some time.”

McCoy said he’s confident most Nebraskans support the death penalty, regardless of the state’s inability to impose it.

“The ones who are on death row now deserve to be there,” McCoy said.

This is the closest Nebraska has come to ending capital punishment since 1979, when Gov. Charles Thone vetoed a repeal measure. A recent Pew Research Center study found 55 percent of Americans favored the death penalty, down from 62 percent in 2011.


State asks federal judge to toss challenge from chief justice

The state Department of Justice on Monday asked a federal judge to toss out Shirley Abrahamson’s lawsuit demanding that she be allowed to retain her title as Wisconsin Supreme Court chief justice.

Voters in April approved a constitutional amendment that allows the justices to elect their chief rather than basing the title on seniority. The high court’s conservative majority voted Justice Pat Roggensack chief last week, stripping the liberal-leaning Abrahamson of a title she’s held since 1996.

Abrahamson has filed a federal lawsuit challenging whether she can be immediately stripped of the title. State attorneys on Monday filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing Abrahamson has failed to state a claim for relief, she’s received her due process and the state had a rational basis for changing the selection process.

In a separate motion on Monday, an attorney representing the four conservative-leaning justices also asked that the suit be dismissed, saying the amendment cannot be undone.

After the amendment was certified by the Wisconsin elections board last week, conservative members of the high court moved quickly to replace Abrahamson as chief justice, voting by email to make Roggensack head. The amendment was widely seen as a move against Abrahamson when legislators approved it for the ballot.

Abrahamson objected to the email vote ousting her and continues to believe she still holds the position, her attorney Robert Peck said in a letter filed with U.S. District Court last week.

Abrahamson, 81, has sued to try to block any change until her court term ends in four years. The next hearing in her lawsuit is May 15.

Most of the chief justice’s duties are administrative and ceremonial, but the person does serve as the head of the state court system. The chief justice’s vote holds no more sway on the court than any other justice.


After slew of fentanyl overdoses, a first guilty plea

One of a half-dozen people charged in a case involving numerous overdoses involving the powerful synthetic drug powdered fentanyl has changed his plea to guilty.

According to WDAY-TV, David Noye Jr., 18, of Grand Forks, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute controlled substances resulting in serious bodily injury and death.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Grand Forks police have issued two public warnings about the dangers of fentanyl since 18-year-old Bailey Henke, of Grand Forks, died from an overdose in January.

Federal prosecutors say that the drugs were obtained from Brandon Hubbard, of Portland, Oregon, who made his first North Dakota court appearance last week in Fargo.


Judge: Trial lawyer can handle appeal for death row client

A judge has dismissed a motion from the state who argued death row inmate Rodney Berget needs a new attorney for his appeals process.

Judge Doug Hoffman ruled Berget could keep Jeff Larson as his lawyer. Larson represented Berget throughout his trial.

Berget was sentenced to die this week for his role in killing a State Penitentiary guard. His execution is on hold.

Assistant Attorney General Paul Swedlund argued that keeping Larson could create conflicts if Berget wants to claim he had poor representation.

Larson said those claims were moot since Berget has never claimed to be dissatisfied and has always asked Larson to represent him.

Hoffman agreed but said in his ruling that state law prohibits Berget from raising questions later about his representation.

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