Nebraska Legislator Fights Death Penalty to the End

By: - August 17, 2007 12:00 am

Thirty-one years after launching a crusade to abolish Nebraska ‘s death penalty, state Sen. Ernie Chambers finally might see his efforts pay off – though not in the way he originally planned, and with time running out in his public career.

The longest-serving lawmaker in the history of Nebraska ‘s single-chamber, non-partisan Legislature – and its only African-American – Chambers has introduced a bill to repeal the death penalty every year since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment. Lawmakers this year voted his bill out of committee for the first time since 1988, and it fell one vote short of reaching the governor’s desk for the first time since 1979, when it was vetoed. Advocates argue that attitudes in the Legislature are shifting for good, largely thanks to Chambers, who must leave office next year under term limits approved by voters in 2000.

As it happens, Chambers may not need his fellow lawmakers to achieve his goal. On Sept. 4, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case challenging Nebraska ‘s use of the electric chair as its sole means of execution. It’s the only state that does so. If the court finds the chair to be cruel and unusual punishment, as death-row inmate Raymond Mata’s lawyers contend, the decision will leave the state with no alternative – and no death penalty.

Chambers, 70, who was first elected in 1970, is central to how the state arrived at this juncture. Just as he has doggedly pursued a death-penalty repeal, he also has used his position on the Judiciary Committee – and a host of legislative stalling tactics – to stifle attempts to use any other method of execution, such as lethal injection, which is far more common across the country.

According to Chambers, he took on the role of obstructionist because he was confident Nebraska ‘s use of the electric chair one day would be ruled unconstitutional, especially as the state became increasingly isolated in its use of the method during the 1980s and 1990s. The tactic reflects his overall strategy: to eliminate the state’s death penalty using every trick at his disposal, no matter how much it infuriates his political opponents.

When the state Supreme Court hands down its decision in State v. Mata, Chambers believes, the justices will hand him a victory in his career-long pursuit.

“I will have achieved by indirection, during the waning hours of my career here, what I could not directly accomplish. This demonstrates that there is more than one way to crack a walnut,” Chambers said in a telephone interview with . “As one with profound respect for living creatures, I cannot use the cliché that there is more than one way to skin a cat. I don’t believe in skinning a cat for any purposes.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, nine other states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia) allow the electric chair under some circumstances, such as if an inmate chooses it or as an alternative to other methods if they are found unconstitutional. None of those states requires the electric chair as Nebraska does, though.

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