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Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers waits as senators greet one another and chat on the floor during a break on the opening day of the 105th Legislature. 

It was the first hearing on a death penalty bill since Nebraskans voted 61 percent to 39 percent in November to slap down the Legislature's repeal of the death penalty.

And emotions erupted on both sides of the issue Wednesday afternoon.

Two opponents of Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers' bill (LB446) that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole criticized senators, several on the Judiciary Committee, for laughing, hugging and giving high-fives to each other after the vote in 2015 when the death penalty was repealed. 

"Shame on you," said Christine Tuttle, whose mother Evonne would have celebrated her 52nd birthday Wednesday, but was killed in a 2002 bank robbery in Norfolk at age 36. "You celebrated on the pain and the sorrow of my family."

Tuttle described watching the video of her mom smiling and laughing while standing at the teller's counter of the bank to cash a check from a part-time job she had quit to spend more time with her family. 

"You see three armed men in masks, carrying guns, walking into the bank," she said. "And you want to yell that they're coming. But you can't."

Those three men, Eric Vela, Jorge Galindo and Jose Sandoval, are now on death row. And Tuttle and her grandmother spent last summer and fall campaigning for the repeal of the Legislature's vote to eliminate the death penalty. 

She said Sandoval had written her a letter telling her if she didn't forgive him she would go to hell. He is still victimizing her and her family from death row, she told the committee. 

"I believe if they had an opportunity to kill again, they would," she said. 

Pierce County Sheriff Rick Eberhardt, who also lobbied and campaigned to keep the death penalty, criticized celebrating and happiness, too. 

"It was truly a sad, sad day," he said.  

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, who had voted to repeal the death penalty, asked Eberhardt if he had ever seen an execution, a beheading. Eberhardt said he had not. 

"I take myself back to that point in Saudi Arabia in Chop-Chop Square. And that's why I'm against the death penalty," Krist told him. "I have seen an oppressive country do things so horrific." 

He felt strongly for those who have lost family members, as he has, he said, but he's also seen the opposite side of the coin. 

"Let me just say that our joyfulness was in succeeding in a task that we thought we needed to succeed in," he said. 

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said she was sorry for any family that felt senators were being disrespectful to them, but she resented the implication their happiness at repealing the death penalty had anything to do with those families and their pain and suffering. 

"That was not the case," she said. 

Chambers talked about how his nephew, the son of his youngest sister, was brutally murdered, shot several times in the head. But he is still against the death penalty, still believes the state should not be allowed to have a policy or practice of killing people it decides are unfit. 

"So for you to come here and say that because things happen to people it turns them into bloodthirsty people who think that other people ought to be killed, you're mistaken," Chambers said. 

Joe Nigro, Lancaster County public defender, said regardless of the vote last fall, repealing the death penalty is still the right thing to do. 

Chambers paraphrased a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that nullified the death penalty in 1972 that said the issue of the death penalty, implicating human dignity, was not to be resolved by a popularity contest or opinion poll. 

"These serious matters are not resolved by a vote of the people. Period," Chambers said. "This is why Legislatures operate." 

Every court and every Legislature knows, he said, that if they submitted everything to a vote of the people, "much would not ever be enacted into law." 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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