NADP lost two long-time supporters and leaders this spring. Nelson Potter and Elizabeth “Betty” Carpenter were both recipients of NADP’s C.A. Sorensen Award, both professors of philosophy at UNL, and both made repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska an important part of their legacies.
Betty and Nelson shared a concern for and mentorship of Harold “Wili” Otey, the first person executed in Nebraska following the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty. Betty, along with her late husband George, who was the principal of the school that used to exist at Nebraska State Penitentiary, was a frequent visitor of Otey, often taking along their young son, Bill. They were impressed with how Willie made a transition from extreme anger to an eagerness to learn, and they supplied him with books until his execution.
Nelson also regularly traveled to lead ethics and logic classes at the prison. At the time of Otey’s execution in 1994, Nelson told the Omaha World Herald “For me and my family, it’s like a death in the family.” For Nelson, each human life was valued–worthy of respect and equality.
Betty was active in rallies on behalf of Randy Reeves in 1999, making signs and leading the efforts that ultimately helped overturn Reeves’s death sentence.
Nelson was the first President of NADP, leading the organization for almost two decades. He knew and earned the respect of countless academics, professional people, legislators, and abolition activists nationwide during his many years of dedication to the end of the death penalty in Nebraska. Throughout the years, and still today, many supporters of abolition in Nebraska have connections that can be traced back to Nelson.
Nelson often said the best part of working against the death penalty was meeting other comrades in the campaign. As former NADP Treasurer Deb Eagan said, “Nelson was a big man with a big heart.” Longtime abolitionist Nan Graf called him Mr. Justice of Lincoln. And former NADP Coordinator Carter Van Pelt wrote from New York City, “Nelson was one of the kindest, most thoughtful and well reasoned people I have ever known. His compassion guided him in his role at NADP, and the death penalty reforms that took place during his tenure are part of his enduring legacy.”
Betty and Nelson will be remembered as a part of the history of the demise of the death penalty in Nebraska. The many people they worked with, inspired, educated, honored and regarded with genteel respect will miss them.
Special thanks to MJ Berry and Christy Hargesheimer for their contributions to this tribute.