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Robert Hilkemann

Sen. Robert Hilkemann

District 4

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The death penalty is a rarely used punishment we reserve for the most heinous of crimes.  One hundred and forty countries around the world have banned it.   The United States is only one of 58 countries that still permits its use.

Growing up on a farm in Northeast Nebraska, the only time I recall ever locking our doors was when Charles Starkweather was on his rampage.  My parents didn’t even want us walking the two miles home from school now that was serious.   I remember feeling relieved when he was arrested.   He was electrocuted soon after.  That was my first recollection of talking about capital punishment.  Should he be sent to the electric chair?  It created great debate on street corners, school, and church.

Over the years I have never thought much about the death penalty, except when it is debated at church or around the family table.  My stand has been that we should keep it for the most heinous of crimes or for killing law enforcement officers.   My denomination, Presbyterian, has called for the elimination of the death penalty long ago.

During my campaign only a few people asked my position on capital punishment and I answered – only for the most heinous crimes.  In an interview with KETV, I was taken by surprise that it was one of the questions they asked me since it had not been an issue during the campaign.

Last summer, a representative of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty called and asked if I would meet with her.  I had already made up my mind on how I felt about the death penalty, but agreed to meet with her.  She shared a touching personal story and then added a few facts I didn’t know.  It isn’t a deterrent and because of all the appeals process, it costs more to put someone to death than to keep them in prison for the rest of their lives with no chance of parole.  As a result, people who commit crimes in larger counties are more likely to be executed than people from smaller counties.  Additionally, with DNA evidence, some people have been exonerated from death row.  I remember leaving that meeting thinking I need to study my position more.

Over the last months, I have visited with families of victims, some which still believe the perpetrators should be executed, but others have told me they didn’t want the death penalty for the perpetrators.  They didn’t want to re-live the experience during the countless appeals processes.  They wanted closure in a different way.

Whenever I met with members of law enforcement or the legal system, I would ask them about the death penalty.  Their responses have been – we “need” the death penalty for plea bargaining.  “Don’t take it away.”

As a member of the Appropriations committee, I have been able to tour some of our correctional facilities.

When I have met with constituents, friends, and others I have been asking them about the death penalty as well.  I have been surprised by how many people say we should repeal it!

The turning point in my decision began April 1, during a personal conversation in my office with Ray Krone.  Ray had been falsely accused and convicted of murder in Arizona in the 90’s and was given the death sentence.  Ray had been at the wrong place at the wrong time.  He was near an area where a woman had been raped and murdered.  He had no resources so was defended by a public defender, and some false evidence was utilized to convict him.   Several years later, his family scrapped together enough money and Ray won a new trial on appeal.  The judge in the second trial believed there was not enough evidence to overturn the conviction.  In 2001, when DNA could be used for back cases, DNA from that case proved Ray was not guilty and matched that of another man in the vicinity of the crime the same day.  Ray was finally a free man after 10 plus years in prison.  Ray was the 100th person exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence, which indicated to me our judicial system doesn’t always get it right.  There have now been more than 150 people exonerated from death row. To me, this is 150 innocent lives that would have been unjustly ended.

One of the questions I asked Ray, “Obviously, you knew you were innocent, but having been in prison over 10 years, if you had been guilty what would you prefer, the death penalty or life in prison without parole?”  Without a second’s hesitation, he said the death penalty.  Here was a man who had lived in prison, saying he would rather be put death than face life in prison without parole.

Earlier this week I told my staff, unless I hear some concrete reasons during floor debate that we should keep the death penalty, I am going to vote for the repeal.

Today, several senators described some horrific Nebraska crimes.  Absolutely awful!  If they weren’t heinous, nothing is.  The “fear” or deterrent of the death penalty did not prevent these crimes from happening.

After telling my decision to a few colleagues and staff, I saw the result of a poll done in March of this year (referred to in Thursday’s edition of the World Herald).  The question asked:  Do you support or oppose replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison with absolutely NO possibility of parole?”  The results from my District 4 constituents show 58% support, 27% oppose, and 15% are unsure to repealing and replacing the death penalty.  I was pleased to learn that most of the residents in my district have come to same conclusion.

This morning, I voted along with 29 of my colleagues to advance the bill that would change a penalty from death to life imprisonment without parole.  This was only a first round vote.  We have two more rounds and possibly a veto override vote to come.

As debate on this solemn issue moves forward, I will continue to listen and learn from people on both sides of the issue. Should there be something compelling enough to convince me to change my vote, I will. For today, I am confident that I voted the right way.


Sen. Robert Hilkemann

District 4
Room 10th Floor
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
(402) 471-2621
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