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On Thursday, I spoke on the floor in support of LB 268, a bill to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life without possibility of parole. During the debate, I felt compelled to share a personal story I heard earlier this week by Dr. Ashley Gage when she asked me to share it on the floor. Dr. Gage is a professor of social work at the University of Nebraska-Kearney who visited the Legislature on Thursday as part of Nebraska Social Workers Legislative day.
When Ashley was 18 years old, she found her father murdered in their front yard. She called 911 and waited for the police to arrive. Ashley shared with me how traumatizing it was to hear her voice on the 911 call played back during news coverage of her father’s death. She further shared with me how grateful she was that her father’s murderer was convicted to a sentence of life without possibility of parole because she was able to have closure. Ashley had to go through the trauma of the trial and her testimony once and only once. She was able to go through the trial and move beyond the trial. In death penalty trials, that is not the case.
After the trial, Ashley was able to get counseling at school and move on with her life. She later received her masters degree in Social Work. Now whenever she has a bad dream or gets a panic attack, she can check online to see that the murderer is still behind bars and she has closure.
In contrast is the experience of another murder victim: Miriam Thimm Kelle. Miriam is the sister of James Thimm, who was tortured and killed by Michael Ryan in 1985. At the time of the trial, her son was an infant. Now, her son is a father himself and Michael Ryan still sits on death row. With every appeal, Michael Ryan’s name and the horrors he committed on James resurface in the news, causing more pain and suffering for Miriam and the Thimm family.
Closure remains very elusive for these victims’ families, as former Douglas County Prosecutor Brent Bloom recognized in a Judiciary Committee hearing in 2009. Specifically, he stated “The existence of the death penalty…perpetuates a cruel illusion that they [murder victim families] may have vengeance, when in reality the system requires years of appeals, repeatedly putting the victims through the nightmare of their loved one’s death…My firsthand experience working with victims is that they simply want to be done with their tragedy.”
LB 599 Moves to Select File
On Wednesday, the Legislature advanced LB 599 on a 32-11 vote. LB 599 exempts high school students from the new minimum wage law, a law that 60% of Nebraska citizens supported at the polls this past November. LB 599 was brought by rural grocery stores who said it was critical for them to stay in business. There was discussion on the floor about whether it was appropriate for senators to vote to abridge something that was passed by a ballot initiative at just the last election. I was one of the 11 who voted no on the advancement of LB 599 and stand in opposition to the bill. I expect there to be robust debate on the Select File in the coming weeks.
LB 605, Prison Reform Bills Advance
On Tuesday, a set of bills aimed at reforming Nebraska’s criminal justice system advanced from General File. One bill,LB 605, was featured in a previous legislative update. The genesis of LB 605 is the work of the Justice Reinvestment Working Group to address the serious issues facing our state’s Department of Corrections including overcrowding and limited post-release supervision of individuals with serious felony offenses. The Justice Reinvestment Working Group was chaired by the Governor, Speaker Adams, and Chief Justice Heavican and consisted of members of the Legislature, judicial branch, and local governments.
I worked closely with Senator Mello and Senator Seiler, chair of the Judiciary committee, regarding LB 605 and its possible impact to counties. Currently, there is a funding mechanism in LB 605, as amended, to cover potential cost shifts to counties. It is important to me that the Legislature does not achieve prison reform and address prison overcrowding by shifting costs to counties. My discussions with members of the Judiciary committee and Sarpy county officials will continue between now and Select File.