From The Intercept:
Miriam Thimm Kelle carries a grim treasury to illustrate the lack of closure the death penalty brings for families of murder victims: a thick album of news stories about her brother, James, the victim in one of the most violent and disturbing murders in Nebraska’s history. She brought the book with her last year to the Nebraska State Capitol, where it sat by her side during a hearing in which she urged lawmakers to pass a bill abolishing capital punishment once and for all.
Kelle’s father had begun collecting the articles after James’s death in 1985, passing them on to his other children before he died 20 years later. The first three pages of the album are about James’s funeral. The rest chronicle the long saga that ensued, the trial and subsequent appeals. The lurid details of James’s death appear again and again. “Each time I read through it,” Kelle told me, “it’s just more crazy and awful.”
The man who killed James, a white supremacist cult leader named Michael Ryan, was sentenced to die in 1986, but in 2015 remained alive on death row. As decades passed, Ryan enjoyed notoriety and attention, while Kelle’s family lived in a sort of “purgatory,” endlessly awaiting an execution date. As Kelle spoke before lawmakers that day, Ryan was dying of cancer. She had no need to see him executed. But she felt betrayed by what she called the “false promise” of the death penalty. “Michael Ryan was sentenced nearly 30 years ago,” Kelle testified. “At that time, my son was in diapers. Now my son has two children of his own. And Michael Ryan still sits on death row.” Kelle said she would “give anything” to go back in time and ask for a life sentence.
Kelle was one of several witnesses at the hearing who were feeling hopeful. The abolition bill, LB268, had been put forward by veteran state Sen. Ernie Chambers — an outspoken champion of social justice who introduced anti-death penalty legislation every year. But recently a coalition of conservatives had joined the fight, reframing the death penalty as a wasteful government program — expensive, ineffective, and contrary to Christian values. Leading the charge was Republican state Sen. Colby Coash, who described how as a college student he had once joined the bloodthirsty throngs outside Nebraska’s death chamber as an execution was carried out. Now he was a staunch fighter for abolition — and part of a growing trend that has seen transforming conservative attitudes about the death penalty.
In May 2015, two months after Kelle testified before lawmakers, the Nebraska legislature passed LB268, in a historic victory for abolitionists. In a 30-19 vote, lawmakers overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, making Nebraska the first red state to end the death penalty in 40 years.
Yet the battle over Nebraska’s death penalty was far from over. In November, voters will have an opportunity to overturn LB268, thanks largely to the efforts —…