National News

Pope’s Death Penalty Stance Won’t Stop Execution, Nebraska’s Catholic Governor Says

Posted August 3, 2018 3:47 p.m. EDT
Updated August 3, 2018 3:48 p.m. EDT

LINCOLN, Neb. — When Nebraska lawmakers defied Gov. Pete Ricketts in 2015 by repealing the death penalty over his strong objections, the governor wouldn’t let the matter go. Ricketts, a Republican who is Roman Catholic, tapped his family fortune to help bankroll a referendum to reinstate capital punishment, a measure the state’s Catholic leadership vehemently opposed.

After a contentious and emotional battle across this deep-red state, voters restored the death penalty the following year. Later this month, Nebraska is scheduled to execute Carey Dean Moore, who was convicted of murder, in what would be the state’s first execution in 21 years.

The prospect has renewed a tense debate in a state that has wrestled with the moral and financial implications of the death penalty for years, even before the 2015 attempt to abolish it. Protesters have been holding daily vigils outside the governor’s mansion to oppose Moore’s execution.

Complicating matters, Pope Francis this week declared that executions are unacceptable in all cases, a shift from earlier church doctrine that had accepted the death penalty if it was “the only practicable way” to defend lives. Coming only days before the scheduled Aug. 14 execution here, the pope’s stance seemed to create an awkward position for Ricketts, who is favored to win a bid for re-election this fall.

Ricketts, who in the past has said that he viewed his position on the death penalty as compatible with Catholicism, on Thursday issued a statement about the pope’s declaration.

“While I respect the pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska,” Ricketts’ statement said. “It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety. The state continues to carry out the sentences ordered by the court.”

But opponents seized on the pope’s comments. Nebraska’s Catholic bishops urged people to contact state officials to stop the scheduled execution of Moore and cited the pope’s teaching. “Simply put, the death penalty is no longer needed or morally justified in Nebraska,” the bishops wrote.

Jane Kleeb, who leads the Nebraska Democratic Party, wrote on Twitter that Ricketts “is going against the teachings of the church” on the matter of executions.

“When you have a priest on Sunday talking about how we don’t believe in the death penalty, I think that will matter to people,” she said in an interview. “Nebraskans are churchgoers and believe in the church and strong family units, and they believe in people paying for their crimes, but not necessarily with their lives.”

In many respects, Moore, 60, has become an afterthought in the buildup to his own execution. He has been on the state’s death row longer than any of the other 11 other men and is among the longest-serving prisoners on any death row in the nation’s history.

The execution planned here has also become part of a national dispute over the use of drugs in death chambers. Nebraska, which was still using an electric chair the last time it executed someone in 1997, has said Moore will be the state’s first execution by lethal injection, using a combination of four drugs, including fentanyl. Nebraska officials have refused to disclose where they obtained the drugs. The execution would be the nation’s first to use fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that has been at the center of the nation’s overdose crisis.

Though the state has had capital punishment on the books for most of the past century, it very rarely condemns people to death and even more rarely kills them. In the United States, executions have been on the decline for years. In 1999, there were 98 executions across the nation, compared to 23 in 2017, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. So far this year, there have been 14.

While 31 states still have death penalty statutes, only 10, including Texas, Ohio and Florida, have carried out executions since 2014, according to the center. During the past decade, several states have placed moratoriums on capital punishment or abolished it altogether. The most recent was Delaware, which banned the death penalty in 2016.

The crimes Moore committed — the murders of two Omaha taxi drivers, Reuel Van Ness Jr. and Maynard Helgeland, during a five-day span in 1979 — occurred so long ago that many in Nebraska know about them only through newspaper articles.

For years, Moore, who admitted to the killings, has made it clear that he is ready to die. He has dismissed his lawyers and refused to take part in efforts to spare his life. He has told friends that, as a born-again Christian, he believes he will be in the presence of God upon his death, his sins forgiven, said Geoff Gonifas, his longtime pastor.

“No one’s happy a man’s life is going to be taken,” said Michael Fischer, 35, a Republican and a financial planner in Omaha who, like many along the streets here, said he supported capital punishment. “But if you take the death penalty off the books, the fear is there won’t be strong discouragement for people to commit crimes.”

In 2016, in part through the governor’s efforts, 61 percent of Nebraska voters chose to rescind a ban on the death penalty that an unlikely coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers had passed a year before. In Lincoln, the state capital, where a unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan but is dominated by Republicans, the battle over the death penalty has gone on for decades. State Sen. Ernie Chambers, an independent from Omaha and one of the Legislature’s most outspoken members, tries nearly every year to push legislation to abolish capital punishment and has clashed bluntly with Ricketts.

Opposition to the death penalty in this state has often centered around matters of religion and morality, but also money. An essential argument that helped an array of lawmakers support an end to capital punishment was the extensive costs involved before a prisoner is actually executed.

“If any other government program had been as inefficient as this one, we would have gotten rid of it,” said Colby Coash, a former Republican state senator who was instrumental in convincing other conservatives to support the death penalty repeal in 2015. “How is killing someone 20 years after the crime justice for anyone?”

Chambers, who once described the death penalty debate as “a personal struggle between me and the governor,” called Ricketts “evil” during a recent interview. A spokesman for the governor responded by questioning Chambers’ religious tolerance.

Ricketts, scion of the TD Ameritrade family fortune and an owner of the Chicago Cubs, has made the death penalty a signature issue as he seeks a second term as governor. In the past, he has repeatedly said that capital punishment deters violent crime. He contributed $300,000 to help with a petition drive that led to the restoration of the death penalty by voters.

Ricketts declined requests to be interviewed for this story, but in an interview in The Omaha World-Herald in 2015, the governor said that his position in favor of executions was in keeping with the tenets of his faith.

“The Catholic Church does not preclude the use of the death penalty under certain circumstances: That guilt is determined and the crime is heinous. Also, protecting society,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “As I’ve thought about this and meditated on it and prayed on it and researched it, I’ve determined it’s an important tool.” Some have suggested that Ricketts’ own family’s experience with violence may have affected his views, though the governor has rarely addressed the issue publicly. In a meeting in 2015 with death penalty opponents, first reported by The World-Herald, participants said the governor spoke to them about the troubling death of a cousin, Ronna Anne Bremer, in Missouri years ago.

Bremer, 22, was the mother of two children and was pregnant when she disappeared in the 1980s. Three years after she disappeared, her skull was mailed to the local sheriff’s department. Authorities said they believe she was murdered, but they never made an arrest in the case.