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Paul Hayden

When Justice is Sentenced to Death

February 18, 2008

Death in the electric chair is now unconstitutional in the state of Nebraska. Why? Because the Nebraska Supreme Court has decided that it is "cruel and unusual punishment."

Nebraska is the last state in the country to use electrocution as its sole means of capital punishment. Instituted in 1913, the chair was first used in 1920. Since then, fifteen murderers have been executed in this manner.

One of them was John Joubert, a 20-year-old airman stationed at Offutt Air Force Base. In late 1983, Joubert terrorized the adjacent city of Bellevue for four months. Beginning in September of 1983, he kidnapped, tortured and murdered two local boys, ages 12 and 13, and then committed sexual acts on their mutilated bodies. In January of 1984, Joubert was captured and subsequently confessed to his crimes. In spite of this clear-cut, straight-forward confession, with all the ridiculous appeals now built into the system, it took 12 years before he was finally put to death in 1996.

The Nebraska Supreme Court's ruling was a 6-1 decision. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the six judges who suddenly discovered that the electric chair was unconstitutional after 95 years in practice were appointed by Nebraska's last Democrat governor, Ben Nelson. The one dissenting vote on the court was from Chief Justice Mike Heavican, appointed by Nebraska's current Republican governor, Dave Heineman.

Heavican said the court's majority injected "their own subjective values into the constitutional analysis."

"The danger in such subjectivity is subtle but nonetheless potent," the chief justice wrote. "Judges do not sit as a body of elected representatives, as do legislatures."

Heineman agreed, saying he was "appalled" by the ruling. He sharply criticized the Supreme Court for what he called "unprecedented and deeply disappointing" judicial activism.

"Today, the court has asserted itself improperly as a policymaker," the governor said. "Once again, this activist court has ignored its own precedent and the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court to continue its assault on the Nebraska death penalty."

The Nebraska court upheld the constitutionality of the electric chair as recently as 2000.

Ten men now sit on death row in Nebraska:

Carey Dean Moore, now 49, shot to death two cab drivers, Reuel Van Ness, Jr., and Maynard Helgeland in 1979. Three decades later, the taxpayers of Nebraska still pay for his upkeep.

Michael Ryan, 59, was a sadistic cult leader in Rulo, Nebraska, in the 1980s. Ryan was convicted in 1985 for torturing to death a young follower, James Thimm.

John Lotter, 35, shot Teena Brandon, Lisa Lambert and Phillip Devine in a farmhouse near Humboldt, Nebraska, on New Years Eve 1993. This case was portrayed in the 1999 movie "Boys Don't Cry."

David Dunster, 52, was sentenced to death for strangling of his cellmate, Larry Witt, in 1997. Previously, he had murdered his cellmate in Montana and a mother of eight in Oregon. The cold-blooded Dunster had raped her and shot her in the head.

Arthur Gales, Jr., 41, raped and murdered 13-year-old Latara Chandler and drowned her 7-year-old brother, Tramar, in Omaha in 2000.

Jeffrey Hessler, 28, kidnapped, raped and murdered Heather Guerrero, a 15-year-old Gering newspaper carrier in 2003.

Jose Sandoval, 27, Jorge Galindo, 25, and Eric Vela, 26, shot to death five people - Lisa Bryant, Jo Mausbach, Sam Sun, Evonne Tuttle and Lola Elwood - during a bank robbery in Norfolk, Nebraska, in 2002.

And then there is Raymond Mata, 34, who was the subject of the Nebraska Supreme Court's ruling. Mata murdered 3-year-old Adam Gomez of Scottsbluff, dismembered the little boy's body and fed parts of it to a dog.

And now the Nebraska Supreme Court has decided that strapping vermin like this into an electric chair is "cruel and unusual" - because it hurts.

To which the vast majority of Nebraskans would respond, "So what?"

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Copyright ©2008 Doug Patton

Doug Patton describes himself as a recovering political speechwriter who agrees with himself more often than not. His weekly columns are syndicated by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Readers are encouraged to email him at dpatton@cagle.comand/or to follow him on Twitter at @Doug_Patton.