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Scott R. Frakes, Director

Scott R. Frakes, Director

Appointed: February 2, 2015

Nebraska Dept. of Correctional Services
P.O. Box 94661
Lincoln, NE 68509-4661
(402) 471-2654

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Rules & Regulations

 

Administrative Regulations

Category: Capital Punishment

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In 1972, the United States Supreme Court in Furman V. Georgia ruled that the arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution and constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Thirty-seven states (including Nebraska) enacted new legislation addressing the Death Penalty that sought to overcome the constitutional defects of the earlier laws and by 1976 the Supreme Court again had upheld the constitutionality of the revised death penalty statutes.

 

Capital Punishment in Nebraska

Prior to 1903, executions in Nebraska were handled in the county where the offense took place. Since 1903, all executions in Nebraska have taken place at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. From 1903 to 1913, the method of execution was by hanging. From 1913 to 2008, it was by the electric chair. As of 2009, it has been by lethal injection. A total of 8 inmates were executed by hanging and 15 inmates by means of the electric chair (23 total). There have been over 70 inmates housed on Death Row from 1903 to the present.

In February 2008, The Nebraska Supreme Court in State vs. Mata found that the electric chair violated the Nebraska Constitution’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause. In 2009, as a consequence of this decision, the Nebraska Legislature passed legislation changing the method of execution to lethal injection. The legislation was modeled on the State of Kentucky’s lethal injection procedures which were upheld as being constitutional by the United States Supreme Court in Baze vs. Rees (April 2008).

The Department has promulgated the procedures to carry out court-ordered executions by lethal injection, as required by the Nebraska Legislature.

The execution chamber is located in the basement of the Nebraska State Penitentiary. There are a series of rooms including a viewing room, preparation room, holding cell and the room that houses the lethal injection bed itself.

Nebraska’s Death Row was housed at the Penitentiary from 1903 to 2002, when it was transferred to the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. Within a week or so of the execution date, the Death Row inmate is transferred to the Penitentiary and housed in a cell adjacent to the execution room on what is called the “death watch.”  While on the death watch, the inmate may have special visits from family, friends, religious representatives and attorneys. The visits are supervised by staff assigned to the death watch and take place in a room in the facility clinic. Inmates may also request a special last meal. Such meals must be prepared from food supplies on hand at the prison.

State statutes provide for thirteen witnesses to an execution: typically six representing the state; three selected by the inmate, plus a religious representative selected by the inmate; and three representing the family(s) of the victim(s). Two of the state witnesses must be members of the Nebraska news media. Since the 1990s, the Department has authorized media representatives to be the state witnesses.

 

Some Noteworthy Capital Cases

Inmate Albert Price #5374 was the last inmate hanged (3/21/13) in Nebraska. While serving another sentence, he received the death penalty for stabbing the Penitentiary Deputy Warden to death in the chapel in 1912.

Emil Muzik #6550 received the death penalty in 1915, but his sentence was commuted. He spent the rest of his life in prison (45 years). It is believed that he was the last inmate buried in the cemetery on the grounds of the Nebraska State Penitentiary (1960).

Inmates Cole #7298 and Grammer #7299 were the first inmates to be executed in the electric chair and also the only inmates, to date, to be executed on the same day (12/20/1920).

Inmate King #7551 was serving another sentence and received the death penalty for killing a prison correctional officer and was executed in 1922.

Perhaps Nebraska’s most infamous inmate was Charles Starkweather #20396 who was executed in 1959 after murdering ten people in a rampage in 1958.

Inmate Jeremy Sheets #50100 was given the death penalty for his alleged involvement in the murder of an Omaha student. His sentence, however, was vacated by the courts (the testimony used to convict him came from a person who committed suicide and thus Sheets “could not confront his accuser” as required by the U.S. Constitution). He is perhaps the only capital inmate to be released from prison directly from death row.

 

Legal Proceedings

Nebraska law regarding the imposition of the death penalty was changed due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires juries rather than judges to determine if the death penalty is appropriate in a first degree murder case. Prior to that time, typically a three judge panel would review a case after a defendant was found guilty of first degree murder and determine if one or more aggravating circumstances outweighed any mitigating circumstances. If an aggravating circumstance was preponderant, the three-judge panel could apply the death penalty. If a mitigating circumstance was preponderant, the defendant would be sentenced to Life Imprisonment. Now jurors are involved in that decision.

In Nebraska, defendants in legal proceedings in capital cases can appeal a wide variety of issues including, jury bias, ineffective counsel, racial/ethnic discrimination, legality of the method of execution and legality of capital punishment itself.

Appeals can be filed with both the Nebraska state courts and the federal courts.