- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

Omaha World-Herald. May 27, 2015.

People need police help

Across the Midlands and our nation, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers and federal authorities suit up daily for the life-threatening work of serving felony arrest warrants.

Last week, a gun-toting target of one such warrant reminded us about the dangers of that work. He shot Omaha Officer Kerrie Orozco, leaving her family, city and country to grieve.

But today, much like the day Orozco was shot and on each day after, law enforcement officers got up, got dressed and went to work to find the next set of accused felons fleeing justice.

As recent events underscore, it’s important to remember the unique risks those officers, deputies, troopers and agents take on our behalf. They hunt and arrest the criminal world’s worst.

These are the suspects accused of felony assault and murder, wanted for robberies, drug deals, rapes and other assorted evils, as The World-Herald’s Emerson Clarridge reported.

The shooting that killed Orozco, 29, and felony assault suspect Marcus D. Wheeler, 26, was the fourth time in five years that a Nebraska fugitive, officer or both were shot during warrant service.

The warrant task force Orozco was assigned to help is a multi-agency, elite law enforcement team staffed by seven local and federal police agencies that serve the Omaha area.

Ed Leahy, who leads the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s separate fugitive-hunting unit, isn’t using hyperbole when he says, “Things can go sideways, for whatever reason.”

They can and often do.

But for law-abiding Midlanders and the victims of crimes both heinous and small, the service performed by officers who risk life and limb to serve these felony arrest warrants means a lot.

By tonight, it means another bad guy in jail. God willing, without the bloodshed that took beloved Officer Kerrie Orozco from her husband and his kids, her baby and a grateful community.

______

Lincoln Journal Star. May 28, 2015.

“On the right side of history”

Nebraska’s lawmakers made history Wednesday, repealing the death penalty in a vote that will reverberate across the country.

The 30-19 vote on the motion by Sen. Ernie Chambers to override a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts made clear the issue is no longer one with a clear partisan divide.

Throughout three rounds of voting and on the override there was a solid group of conservative Republicans who supported replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole.

In the end more Republican state senators voted for repeal than the 13 Democrats in the nonpartisan Legislature.

In the days leading up to the climactic vote, Chambers declared that “when something is of truly historic significance, it is not because of one individual or one act.”

Chambers is right about that. But it’s also true that in Nebraska there is no single individual who has done more than Chambers to force Nebraskans in and out of the legislative chamber to examine their conscience and rationale on the death penalty.

The veto override came on his 38th attempt to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole, according to the legislative research office.

Chambers was quick to credit the group of conservative state senators. They were vocal, articulate and unflinching. One of the most active was Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a one-time supporter of the death penalty. Among Coash’s efforts was a statement signed by 13 Republican state senators supporting Sen. Mike Gloor after he was attacked politically for supporting repeal.

The growing conservative support for repealing the death penalty was not lost on Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which has advocated for repeal for decades. In 2012 it launched Nebraska Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty, a chapter in a national movement.

On that group’s website is a quote from Coash that summarizes the conservative argument against the death penalty: “Conservatives know that government is imperfect and makes mistakes. My desire to protect innocent life leads me to worry about a fallible system that has the power to take a life . If this (the death penalty) were any other government program, we would have got rid of it a long time ago.”

There’s little doubt that there is momentum in favor of abolishing the death penalty. Six states have now eliminated the death penalty since 2007, and the number of executions and death penalty sentences is at a 20-year low.

In fact there has been majority support in the Legislature for years, but opponents have been able to dead-end the effort with filibusters. The Legislature’s rules now will work against senators who want to reinstate the death penalty, especially with Chambers, dean of the Legislature and master of the rules, there to thwart such efforts.

Supporters of the death penalty say they will collect signatures put the issue on the ballot. The task of reversing the Legislature’s vote may prove more difficult than they imagine. Support for the death penalty is not as deep and committed as zealots would like to believe, and the arguments for abolishment are strong.

As Chambers put it, repeal of the death penalty “puts Nebraska on the right side of history.”

______

McCook Gazette. May 27, 2015.

Veto vote measure of Legislature’s trust in administration

By the time many of you read this, the question will be answered: Did the Nebraska legislature override Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of LB 268 to repeal the death penalty?

The bill passed with only 32 votes, two more than the 30 required to enact the law over Ricketts’ veto.

Two recent events might have had a disproportionate effect on the outcome.

One was the killing of a popular Omaha police officer who was also the new mother of a premature baby about to be released from the hospital.

A second was the death from natural causes, of Michael Ryan, who has been on death row for three decades after sadistic cult killings.

Even those opposed to the death penalty would have difficulty finding justification for allowing Ryan to live, and if OPD officer Kerrie Orozco’s killer had not been killed by police, the same might be said for him.

Whether that would be enough to persuade three senators to change their votes was the question.

Ricketts, law enforcement officials and family members of a bank employee killed in a Norfolk robbery urged lawmakers Tuesday to uphold the governor’s veto.

LB 268 does nothing to repeal current death sentences, according to the Nebraska attorney general, and the state recently paid more than $50,000 for lethal injection drugs from India which should arrive this summer.

All the usual arguments have come up during the current attempt to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty:

- Is it moral for the state to take a life because someone else took a life?

- Is it constitutional? i.e. cruel and unusual punishment? The electric chair was declared as such in 1997, forcing Nebraska to resort to lethal injection, which is becoming more and more difficult to administer because of supply problems and botched executions.

- Does it actually reduce crime?

- Does society have a right to exact retribution on killers and other criminals by killing them?

- What if someone is falsely convicted? More than 150 people have been freed from death row since the modern death penalty was revived in 1973.

- Does it cost more or less to send someone to prison for life without parole?

- Is it applied fairly to minorities and poor people?

- Do all defendants in capital crimes get adequate legal representation?

- Can a physician morally oversee an execution?

And there are many other arguments for most capital punishment debates.

The tipping point for Nebraska’s repeal attempt, however, probably was something more practical: competence.

The Nebraska Department of Corrections has yet to recover from a sentencing scandal that saw a major shakeup in the agency after officials were found to be responding to overcrowding by releasing prisoners early in defiance of court decisions. That included one Nikko Jenkins, who went on a killing spree after his release.

At trial, he claimed he killed under direct orders of Apophis, an Egyptian evil snake-god who tried to devour the sun every night.

Before the sentencing scandal, law enforcement’s image took a hit when Douglas County’s top crime scene investigator went to jail for planting evidence.

The governor and attorney general asked lawmakers to trust them to clean up problems with Nebraska’s criminal justice system.

Today’s vote by the Legislature was a referendum on that trust.

___

Kearney Hub. May 27, 2015.

Sanctuary volunteers put cranes on the map

Long before Nebraska became known as a flyover state in national politics, we were a fly through state for migratory birds, most notably the sandhill cranes. Today their spring and fall migrations through the Platte River region of south-central Nebraska is among the world’s most amazing wildlife spectacles.

It might be hard to believe, but we Kearney residents weren’t always so aware of the cranes’ migration, nor were we as much excited about it as we are these days. We can thank an army of volunteers at the Lilian Annette Rowe Audubon Society Sanctuary near Gibbon for the growth in awareness about the cranes and for the manner in which we now embrace them.

It was in the mid-1970s when the Audubon Society established its Rowe Sanctuary as a wildlife refuge and landing pad for the cranes.

In the beginning, the sanctuary comprised just 750 acres, but now it encompasses 2,400 acres, and interest in the sandhill crane migration has exploded. Years ago Kearney residents talked casually about the cranes’ arrival over coffee or in the checkout line, but these days the migration is big business, as wildlife enthusiasts and romantics from around the globe race to Kearney to witness one of the earth’s truly breathtaking and inspirational wildlife phenomenons.

All of that outside interest is fueled by major media exposure. Metro newspapers, national TV networks, and this year, a major Chinese newspaper, have trumpeted news about the cranes. How ironic that for so many years, we Kearneyites mostly ignored the birds, but today we have a crane festival and other events to underscore our claim as the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World.

All of this crane interest didn’t just happen. We can trace much of it to Audubon Society visionaries who established the Rowe Sanctuary. We also can credit the hundreds of volunteers who staff Rowe during the peak of migration season. Last week the Kearney Sertoma Club bestowed its annual Service to Mankind Award on the 200 volunteers who migrate here from near and far so they can help others to enjoy and learn about the migration.

The Rowe volunteers have earned their recognition through hard work. They understand the importance of protecting the cranes by securing habitat and shaping public sentiment. When it comes to cranes, the Rowe volunteers were country before country was cool. They wear the title, “craniac,” with pride.

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