LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers appear headed for another debate about abolishing the state's death penalty.
At least five of the eight Judiciary Committee members are expected to support advancement of a repeal bill.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said he would name the bill his priority for the session if it gets out of committee.
“It's always a priority for me,” he said after a public hearing Wednesday on Legislative Bill 543.
The bill, which Chambers introduced, represents the latest round in the veteran lawmaker's long-running struggle to abolish capital punishment in the state.
It would substitute life in prison without parole for the death sentence.
The bill also would eliminate legal authorization for any means of execution, making it impossible to execute the 11 men now on death row.
State law currently provides for lethal injection as the sole means of carrying out the death sentence.
However, a legal challenge is pending over how the state obtained one of the three drugs to be used in executions. No executions are currently scheduled.
Chambers has come close to succeeding in getting rid of the death penalty in previous years. The Legislature passed his repeal bill in 1979, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Thone.
But convincing this year's Legislature, which includes several members who have not been through a death penalty debate, could be difficult.
Two years ago, the Judiciary Committee advanced a repeal measure introduced by former Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha, who was defeated for re-election last fall from her north Omaha district by Chambers.
The full Legislature took up the measure for debate last year.
But Council wound up pulling her bill from the agenda because it did not have the votes to advance. Former Sen. Lowen Kruse of Omaha, a United Methodist Church minister, said current lawmakers should consider the question of the death penalty.
“I trust you will put this out on the floor and force the senators to vote whether to kill somebody or let them live,” he told the Judiciary Committee.
Bill Thornton, another minister who spoke in support of the bill, said there is growing opposition to the death penalty among evangelical Christians.
“No person is beyond redemption,” he said. “I believe we should not advocate cutting someone's life short and therefore guaranteeing them no chance to experience redemption.”
On the other side, the county attorneys for Douglas and Lancaster Counties spoke for the Nebraska County Attorneys Association.
“We feel that, in certain unique circumstances, we need to have this ultimate punishment,” said Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine.
He said he has prosecuted two death penalty cases, those of Arthur Lee Gales and Roy Ellis. Both men were convicted of killing children. But committee members said there are other people convicted of similar or worse murders who did not get the death penalty.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha questioned how the differences affect families of victims.
“We have people in the general (prison) population who have committed some of the most outrageous homicides,” he said.
Miriam Timm Kelle, the sister of one murder victim, said that having her brother's killer sentenced to death has not helped her family.
Rather, she said, it means repeated public attention for the killer as he goes through each round of appeals, instead of for her brother, James Timm.
“If execution ever comes, it will be another day about Mike Ryan and not about my brother,” she said.
The hearing on LB 543 came as Maryland is poised to repeal its death penalty.
It would become the sixth state in as many years to do so and would bring to 18 the number of states without a death penalty.
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