- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Family members of murder victims called on Nebraska lawmakers Wednesday to abolish the death penalty in the state, saying it prolongs the suffering of the relatives of those who died and wastes tax dollars on endless appeals.

Several dozen people rallied at the Capitol in advance of a legislative hearing on a bill that would end capital punishment. Death-penalty opponents circulated a letter signed by 25 relatives of murder victims.

Miriam Thimm Kelle, whose brother James Thimm was tortured and killed on a southeast Nebraska farm in 1985, said her son was in diapers when her brother’s killer was sentenced.

Her son now has two children, and her brother’s killer, Michael Ryan, is still sitting alive on death row. With his every appeal, Thimm Kelle said, Ryan’s name resurfaces in the news. Had he received life without parole, she said her family could have moved on more easily and avoided conflicts with relatives who want to see him executed.

“My children could have grown up not seeing their uncle’s killer as a celebrity,” she said.

Tricia Moore, whose 23-year-old son Jer’ray was murdered in Omaha in 2013, said the death penalty creates a distraction for family members. Moore said the money spent on death-penalty appeals should instead be used on counseling for families of victims and other services, such as helping with funeral expenses.

“If we’re serious about helping victims, this is where we should invest our energy, but we don’t in Nebraska,” she said.

The bill has enough support to advance out of committee, but its prospects in the full Legislature are uncertain. Even though Republicans gained seats in the November election, several new GOP senators have indicated that they support the bill. Senators would likely have to override a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has said he supports the death penalty.

The repeal measure was introduced by longtime Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has fought for nearly four decades to end capital punishment. His death penalty bill passed out of the Legislature once, in 1979, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charles Thone.

Chambers told the Judiciary Committee about his experiences with several death-row inmates minutes before they were executed, including serial killer John Joubert, who was electrocuted in 1996. Most politicians who support capital punishment have never seen one firsthand, he said.

“This bill may not pass, but as long as I’m in this Legislature, I’m going to try to save this state from itself,” Chambers said. “I’m going to try to get rid of the barbarity that I witnessed.”

Nebraska has sentenced 33 offenders to death since 1973, and of those inmates, three have been executed. The last was Robert E. Williams, who was electrocuted in 1997. Williams confessed to killing three women and trying to kill a fourth during a three-day rampage in 1977 that crossed into three states.

Murder is the only crime that can draw the death penalty in the state, and Nebraska has 11 men currently sitting on death row. Some of them were convicted of sexual assaults, robberies or torturing victims during the murders.

Lawmakers last debated the death penalty in 2013, when an attempt to repeal it failed because of a legislative filibuster.

Senators who support the death penalty say Nebraska’s system affords inmates numerous chances to appeal their sentences, often over decades. They also contend that improved DNA identification and evidence-gathering have reduced the chances of the state executing an innocent person.

Nebraska lost its only approved method to carry out executions when its supply of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic required under the department’s rules, expired in December 2013. The drug is no longer produced in the United States, and European Union countries are prohibited from selling the drug for use in capital punishment.

The state Department of Correctional Services has not obtained a new supply of the drug, spokesman James Foster said Wednesday.

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The bill is LB268

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