The forecast was for morning rain Aug. 14, and slowly, the skies darkened and then unleashed a steady downpour in Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital city.
This seemed appropriate. After a long string of sunny weather, the sky was weeping. Nebraska was conducting the first execution of a death row inmate in over 20 years.
During the first three years I lived here, I worked for Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an organization working to repeal execution, which had been on the books for a long time but, since the electric chair was retired, not used.
Mine was a part-time organizing job, and it took me to small towns, Sunday morning church coffee hours and school classrooms talking about the multitude of reasons to end the death penalty.
By now, you know the litany: the death penalty is more expensive than life in prison, almost universally regarded as no deterrent to crime, a vestige of slavery, still used mainly in the former slave states and inordinately targeted at people of color. Since 1973, 162 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. How reliable is a system that gets it wrong that often?
The moral issues were made easier when speaking to Catholic groups, with our three most recent popes making their opposition clear. Then, Pope Francis weighed in days before Nebraska’s execution saying that the death penalty was simply inadmissible: an affront to the dignity of the human person.
In 2015, Nebraska’s legislature repealed the death penalty. It was an exhilarating victory. Then, by a heart-stopping one vote, the legislature overrode the governor’s veto of the repeal bill. Execution was overturned in a solidly red state because thoughtful legislators took the time to really study the issues, aided by the voluminous info that our group provided.
So why, you wonder, did we execute Carey Dean Moore? This brings us to our governor, Pete Ricketts. Pete, who vetoed the original bill, was not pleased with an override. He never views overrides as part of the democratic process, but rather as a personal affront.
The son of the founder of TD Ameritrade, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, Pete is the scion of enormous wealth and privilege. Although he calls himself a pro-life Catholic, in a state whose Catholic Bishops vehemently oppose execution, Ricketts put some of that wealth to work launching a petition drive to put the death penalty issue on the ballot.
Unfortunately, an overwhelming number of Nebraskans, who had not studied voluminous info, voted to reinstate the death penalty.
I have visited death row. Unlike some states where death row inmates greet visitors from cages, our inmates sat around with us in the visitors’ room eating junk food we’d buy from the vending machines. (No homemade cookies allowed here.) The chaplain whom I accompanied on my first visit told me it was “like a cocktail party without the cocktails.”
Sort of, if hard plastic chairs, glaring lights, a package of Chips Ahoy and an armed guard in the corner are your kind of cocktail party.
That’s where I met Carey, a man who had committed two heinous crimes to feed an addiction nearly 40 years ago, killing two taxi drivers, family men with young kids.
Carey was sentenced to death in 1979. At sixty-years-old, soft-spoken, remorseful, and a Christian for decades, Carey was sick of appeals and said he was ready to die.
I don’t think anyone in Nebraska felt safer after his execution. But the governor got his way. After a pause to reorganize, the fight will go on.