Capital Punishment Procedures, Transmission Lines Targeted

Jan. 14, 2019, 5:16 p.m. ·

Snowy Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Changes designed to make executions in Nebraska more transparent were proposed in the Legislature Monday. And a senator says a proposal he introduced last week is part of a final effort to reroute a controversial electrical transmission line away from the Sandhills.

Senator Patty Pansing Brooks introduced the bill that would affect how Nebraska implements the death penalty. Her proposal would require two state senators, selected by the Legislature’s Executive Board, witness any execution. It would prohibit anyone from limiting witnesses’ ability to see any part of the execution. And it would allow people participating in the execution to wear masks to disguise their identity.

Pansing Brooks said her goal is for executions to be more transparent. During the execution of Carey Dean Moore in August, after the lethal drugs were administered, a curtain was lowered, blocking the view of witnesses for 14 minutes before it was raised and Moore was seen to be dead. (For a story about the execution, click here).

Pansing Brooks opposes the death penalty. But she said if the state is going to use it, “then we better darn well make sure that we are doing it properly and the witnesses are actually able to witness the entire execution. Having a 14- or a 19-minute gap is not appropriate.”

“It is very clear that as a state, if we are going to do the most serious of acts, which is taking the life of a human being, then we had better be sure that everything is done appropriately and according to protocol and humanely,” she added.

Pansing Brooks also said she wants to eliminate protection of employee privacy as a reason to limit witnesses’ ability to see. “That’s a problem that is easily solved by making sure that the people that are participating in the execution can wear a mask, they can wear special glasses that would hide their identity. So that’s not a reason to put that curtain down,” she said.

And she said requiring state senators to be among the witnesses makes sense, since senators make the laws. When asked if she would be willing to be a witness herself, Pansing Brooks said she hadn’t thought about it. “I would hope that they would be able to find somebody else, because it’s so contrary to my whole being. I already feel as if I am responsible in a way, as a member of this state and a member of the Legislature, I feel in a way that we are all slightly responsible for the killing of a human being,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Correctional Services had no immediate comment on the legislation.

Separately, Corrections Director Scott Frakes said the department significantly reduced staff turnover last year. Frakes said turnover in protective services positions, which includes employees who deal directly with inmates, declined nine percent, to reach 31 percent. Agency-wide, he said turnover dropped 14 percent, to reach 24 percent.

Frakes credited better pay, bonuses, and a reduction of serious injury assaults for what he called a significant improvement. But he added turnover is still twice as high as it should be.

And Sen. Tom Brewer said legislation he introduced on eminent domain is part of the endgame in the controversy over a proposed electrical transmission line through the Sandhills in central Nebraska. Brewer’s legislation would eliminate a section of state law that allows the use of eminent domain to build transmission lines for privately developed renewable energy generation.

Brewer said eminent domain should not be used for private projects. “Private wind farms are not a public interest. The idea behind the eminent domain is that is a need for the general public. And using government against your neighbor so you can make money is not the idea behind the original concept of eminent domain,” he said.

Brewer’s bill is based on opposition to the 225-mile long R-Project transmission line proposed by the Nebraska Public Power District. It is supposed to reduce congestion, increase reliability, and provide opportunity for alternative energy projects, such as wind and solar.

Supporters say it will help economic development, and NPPD spokesman Mark Becker says any alternative energy projects would have to be approved locally. Critics of the R-project say it will destroy unspoiled views and harm the fragile landscape. (For an earlier story on the project, click here).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been conducting an environmental review of the project’s effects on the endangered American Burying Beetle. But recently, opponents of the line have presented new data suggesting that it could also affect endangered whooping cranes. (For an earlier story on this development, click here).

Brewer said two Nebraska-based Fish and Wildlife employees who were working on that question, Eliza Hines and Bob Harms, have been sidelined. “I think that there is enough influence that’s wielded by NPPD that they are forcing the issue and if you are a biologist and you disagree with that, they’re just having you removed from the project,” he said.

Asked about that charge, NPPD spokesman Becker said “I am not aware of that. You would have to ask Fish and Wildlife Service why they made that decision.”

A call to Fish and Wildlife got a recorded response. “Due to lapse in funding of the federal government budget, we are out of the office. We are not authorized to work during this time, but will respond to your message when we return,” it said.

Brewer said he expects when the partial federal government shutdown ends, Fish and Wildlife will publish notice effectively approving the project. “There will be a window of 90 days here where the future of the R-Line and the wind farms for central and western Nebraska that will be affected by the R-Lines will probably be decided. So it’s going to be a busy time to sort this out. And I think once it goes past a certain point, it’s a point of no return and there’ll be no further ability to affect this, so we’re on a full-court press right now,” he said.

Correction: The audio version of this story said the execution chamber curtain was raised and Moore was pronounced dead. Actually, he was pronounced dead while the curtain was down, and it was raised to show his body.