Omaha World-Herald - Former prison warden says Nebraska would be better off without dp

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Steve Hall

Nov 11, 2014, 1:16:21 PM11/11/14

Tuesday, November 11, 2014 | Omaha World-Herald


Former prison warden says Nebraska would be better off without death penalty

By Joe Duggan / World-Herald Bureau


LINCOLN — Nebraska officials should prepare for a possible botched execution if they obtain the lethal drugs to carry out the death penalty, says a former Oregon prison warden who opposes capital punishment.


And if a condemned inmate fails to die as planned, some of the prison staff members assigned to the task could need psychological help, said Frank Thompson, who oversaw a pair of executions during the 1990s in Oregon.


“Oklahoma and Arizona could happen right here in Nebraska and your staff and the general public deserve better,” Thompson said Monday, referring to executions in which witnesses said the condemned experienced prolonged deaths and appeared to have felt pain or struggled to breathe.


Nebraska has 11 inmates on death row but currently lacks a viable death penalty because one of its expired lethal injection drugs has become difficult to replace. Attorney General Jon Bruning recently said he expects it will take about a year before the state could resume executions.


Nebraska last executed a convicted killer in 1997, when the method was the electric chair. The Legislature switched to lethal injection in 2009.


Thompson, 71, of Salem, Oregon, has been making public appearances this week as a guest of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He spoke at events in Omaha, Columbus and Fullerton over the past two days and will appear in Wahoo and Hastings on Tuesday.


Thompson experience of carrying out Oregon’s lethal injection protocol almost 20 years ago turned him from a supporter of capital punishment to a committed opponent. In an interview Monday, he argued Nebraska should direct the money it spends on maintaining a death penalty to services for crime victims or prisoner rehabilitation.


He also argued that state officials need to take into account the psychological impact an execution can have on those who carry it out. Even if the condemned person dies without outward signs of suffering, it can leave emotional scars on those involved.


“This is immoral, in my opinion, when you have reasonable alternatives,” he said.


Some listeners at his Nebraska talks have politely challenged his positions, he said. He said he understands the anguish of survivors because he lost a first-cousin, a man he described “closer than a brother, to a killer who was later executed.


“I can remember feeling good about his execution, but I can tell you right now, I wish (my cousin) was still alive,” he said. “After a while, (his killer’s) execution really didn’t solve anything for me.”


A spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services did not respond to a message seeking comment about Thompson’s policy positions.


But former Corrections Director Bob Houston, who resigned earlier this year, said Monday that the department provides emergency services for corrections officers and other staff members, including counseling. He said he was not aware of emotional problems that emerged among past members of the execution team.


“It’s difficult for staff, but that’s the nature of public service,” Houston said. “That just happens to be one of the many things that’s difficult for corrections people to carry out.”


Houston declined to say whether he agrees or disagrees with Thompson’s position that abolishing capital punishment is in the best interest for corrections departments.


“That’s for policy makers to decide,” he said. “Even in retirement, that’s not for me to decide.”


State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha has vowed to continue his fight against the death penalty, and it is expected he will introduce a bill to outlaw the practice when the Legislature convenes in January.


In 2013, a total of 28 senators voted to cut off a filibuster of Chambers’ repeal bill, short of the 33 votes necessary. But the vote also signaled the most support behind a repeal effort in recent years.


The Legislature will welcome 18 new senators in January. Republicans gained five seats in the officially nonpartisan body, for a total of 35. Democrats hold 13 seats, and there is one independent.


Republican governor-elect Pete Ricketts has said he supports the death penalty.

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Steve Hall

The StandDown Texas Project

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Austin, TX  78711


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