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By Chair or Needle, Executions Have Cost

April 16, 2010 | By Robert Nelson

Several weeks ago, I got a call from Win Barber, an official with the Nebraska Department of Corrections, who said he was updating a list he had from a few years ago. It was the list of public witnesses for Nebraska’s next execution.

“Are you still willing to be a witness?” he asked.

I paused. Stuttered a bit. In my head, answers flew by: “Yes,” “No,” “Hell, no,” “I have a dentist’s appointment that day,” “I probably should,” “I can’t handle it,” “Maybe,” “Go away,” “Who names their kid ‘Win’?”

“Yes, I’ll do it,” I finally answered. “I should see it if my state does it.”

That also had been my thought nearly three years ago, when I agreed to witness the electrocution of Carey Dean Moore. I figured I should see it if I supported it. Or, in my case, didn’t actively not support it.

I especially should see it, I figured then, to determine if the electric chair was as grisly as billed. I should explain to readers what it looked like.

You know the rest of the story. No execution. Electric chair deemed cruel and unusual.

Then I forgot about it.

But the issue kept moving. Last year, legislators agreed to change our method of execution to lethal injection.

A move that, Barber explained, “got the ball rolling again.”

One step in this process was making sure the state had a crew of witnesses.

I must admit: This job as a witness sounds a lot easier this time: guy lies down; guy gets a needle inserted into his arm; guy goes to sleep; guy dies.

It sounds about the same as witnessing a surgery, except with less blood.

Amazing how little talk there was of any option other than lethal injection.

You know, like the option of not executing people.

Also amazing was the lack of discussion of another matter: In a close vote last month, legislators decided not to approve a study to determine the cost of capital punishment in Nebraska.The plan was to give some $50,000 to a team of University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers to get to the bottom of this simple question: Exactly how much more do taxpayers spend to give a criminal a sentence of death compared to life in prison?

One senator argued that we don’t need to know the cost because it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind.

Apparently, then, we all love the death penalty so much, especially this new happy sleep-time version of it, we don’t care how much it costs.

This during a legislative session in which the smallest outlay, especially if related to children’s health, was getting shot down because of budget concerns.

An interesting twist in all this: As legislators debated keeping themselves ignorant on this matter, the folks at ACLU Nebraska requested from the state prison an accounting of the cost of switching from the electric chair to lethal injection.

A change that the attorney general last year said would have “no fiscal impact.”

In fact, documents show, about $33,000 had been spent by January remodeling the death chamber, buying lethal-injection equipment and sending prison officials to prisons around the country to learn how to kill with chemicals instead of electricity.

So there is a cost to this friendly new form of killing people, even beyond the extra legal costs.

One stainless steel table: $1,748.

A flight for seven officials to Texas: $6,583, plus $924 in expenses.

Bullet-resistant and one-way glass: $2,450.

And the priceless, much-needed reminder that even tidy executions come with a cost.

Contact the writer: 444-1129, Copyright (c) 2010 Omaha World-Herald 04/16/2010


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