CRUEL AND UNUSUAL
Nebraska was the last state in the U.S. to use the electric chair as its execution method. It has grappled with the morals and constitutionality of the death sentence since territorial times. Until 1903 executions were carried out in the county in which individuals were convicted. Botched executions became so numerous that the state took over the process. In 1920, Nebraska capital punishment switched from the gallows to the electric chair. The Nebraska Supreme Court, in State v. Mata ruled electrocution constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Nebraska Constitution in 2007. The state legislature approved a bill to change Nebraska's method of execution to lethal injection and Gov. Dave Heineman signed it in 2009. No prisoner has been executed in the state since 1997.
Albert Haunstein was hanged in May 1891 after being convicted of killing two Custer County sheriff's deputies three years previously. The crowd was so eager to see justice served that they tore down the wood-and-barbed-wire barrier built around the scaffolding. They saw the man hanged twice. The rope broke during the first attempt, so Custer County authorities had to drag Haunstein to the scaffold and hang him again. The second attempt was successful.
Executions were often a form of entertainment as well as a way of serving justice. This ticket was for the execution of Bert Taylor on October 28, 1910. He had murdered his sister-in-law on her homestead near Minden.
The newspapers treated Taylor like a celebrity, with a front-page article and a sketch of his face.
The electric chair was Nebraska's only form of execution from 1920-2008.
Twenty-year-old Charles Starkweather was executed in the electric chair on June 25, 1959, just seventeen months after conducting an eleven-victim killing spree with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Fugate, in January 1958.
Twenty-nine-year-old Erwin Charles Simants received a life sentence after being convicted of killing six members of his neighbor family in 1975 in Sutherland. In 1976, Simants was sentenced to die in the electric chair, but the sentence was thrown out on the grounds of jury tampering. Simants was then found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1979. He has been confined at the Lincoln Regional Center, where each year the court reviews Simants' medical condition to judge if he is mentally competent.
THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart
On October 18, 1975, six people lay dead in their home in Sutherland, Nebraska. This shocking crime drew instant national attention. Twenty-nine-year-old Erwin Charles Simants, the neighbor of the slain family, was soon arrested and charged with the crime.
Because the murders were so horrific, both defense and prosecuting attorneys feared that it would be impossible to impanel a jury, and they asked the judge to issue a gag order to restrain the press from making the details public.
Judge Hugh Stuart imposed the gag order. Immediately the Nebraska Press Association filed suit to have it lifted. This case pitted the First Amendment guarantee of a free press against the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
The case finally came before the United States Supreme Court, which found in favor of the press in a unanimous decision. In dealing with the tension between First and Sixth Amendment rights the court held that restraining a free press would be far more dangerous to justice than the potential of a prejudiced jury. American justice is best protected by the light of day shining from open coverage by the press.
Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart is regarded as one of the most important and frequently cited First Amendment decisions in modern history.