My stance on the use of the death penalty has gone through changes. I found it easy to have a pro-death penalty stance until faced with the option of having a voice in the policy.
Before my policymaking role, I had never given much consideration to the matter. It seemed reasonable. It felt right to be on the side of justice for the victim. An "eye for an eye" had a nice ring to it. The phrase appealed to my sense of justice.
That sense of justice, however, changed when I began to meet the relatives of actual victims.
More than my experiences as a senator, however, one event changed my heart, mind and my outlook on capital punishment. On Sept. 3, 1994, as a college freshman, I took a short trip to the Nebraska Penitentiary to bear witness in the parking lot of the execution of Willie Otey.
I can only describe what I saw there as ugly. If you didn't know where you were, you might have thought you were at a New Year's Eve party. There was a band playing music, a barbecue, coolers of beer and an official countdown to midnight when he would be executed. There was a genuine celebratory nature of the event. There were people banging pots and pans and chanting "fry him, fry him."
A snow fence was erected to separate this group from another consisting of quiet, praying observers.
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That night, I partied, I chanted, chugged beer and at midnight I celebrated someone's death. Along with hundreds of others, I toasted a midnight clock stroke of justice.
That was the event that changed my view. I attempt no persuasion of others on this issue. My position is the result of my experience. I made a decision during my shame that I would no longer be a part of someone's death. Thankfully, I don't think anyone else will have the opportunity to play a role in a similar way.
My changed sense of justice has been further reinforced by my frequent conversations with Merriam Thimm-Kelle. Her brother's killer sits on death row. Every time an execution date is set, she feels she will have justice. When that date comes and goes her family is again forced to relive her brother's murder with attention going to the condemned.
As she stated in our hearing: "Our sentence has been going on for over 25 years and there's been no execution. ... Every appeal and on and on, everything about the horrible death again, year in, year out. If execution ever comes, it will be another day about Michael Ryan and nothing about (my brother) Jim. ... Death penalty supporters say that carrying out the death penalty is family closure. Closure is a myth. The death penalty does absolutely nothing for families except more pain."
I ask, "Where is the justice?" I didn't find it as a young college student, and find no justice as a senator.