I’m sure when Jon Bruning approved this video, he was hoping it would portray him as a real Nebraskan – one of ours – standing on the shoulders of pioneers.
Instead, it reminds me of Willa Cather’s 1923 essay, “Nebraska, The End of the First Cycle”:
In Nebraska, as in so many other States, we must face the fact that the splendid story of the pioneers is finished, and that no new story worthy to take its place has yet begun. The generation that subdued the wild land and broke up the virgin prairie is passing, but it is still there, a group of rugged figures in the background which inspires respect, compel admiration. With these old men and women, the attainment of prosperity was a moral victory, because it was wrung from hard conditions, was the result of a struggle that tested character. They can look out over these broad stretches of fertility and say: “We made this, with our backs and our hands”. The sons, the generation now in middle life, were reared amid the hardships, and it is perhaps natural that they should be very much interested in material comfort, in buying whatever is expensive and ugly. Their fathers came into a wilderness and had to make everything, had to be ingenious as shipwrecked sailors. The generation now in the driver’s seat hates to make anything, wants to live and die in the automobile, scudding past those acres where the old men used to follow the long corn-rows up and down. They want to buy everything ready made: clothes, food, education, music, pleasure. Will the third generation – the full-blooded, joyous one just coming over the hill – will it be fooled? Will it believe that to live easily is to live happily?
I’d remembered Jon as a stand-up guy in the Nebraskan tradition of independent thought – who wouldn’t be pigeon-holed – and who was unafraid to speak up for the Rule of Law, fundamental rights and fair play.
When I heard Jon was running for the Republican nomination for Senate against former AG and Harvard Law graduate, Don Stenberg, famous for his 2000 anti-civil union comment, ”Or a man and a dog can get married? Where are you going to draw the line? A son and a mother? A father and a daughter?”, I was relieved. I’d take Jon over Stenberg any day of the week – particularly as I’d heard recently that Stenberg was running again, this time with the backing of FreedomWorks, a right-wing PAC.
I put it down to confusion when a family member told me the other day that Bruning is the hard-core Tea Party darling.
Then I saw Clive Stafford Smith’s Valentine’s Day tweet: “Gotta love Nebraska: wanting to use drugs stolen from Swiss company to execute Michael Ryan for his crimes” -and read this chronology of Jon Bruning’s involvement and extraordinary interview comments – and my heart sank.
The legal and procedural background – in a nutshell
The Nebraska Supreme Court held in State v Mata (2008) that the State’s one method of executing the death penalty, the electric chair, was cruel and unusual punishment and therefore contrary to the Nebraska state constitution.
While Jon attempted to get the Nebraska Supreme Court to “re-hear” the case, they rejected his request out of hand. On this rejection, Jon vowed to take the case to the US Supreme Court.
But later that month, the US Supreme Court held in Baze v Rees that Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol (which crucially includes sodium thiopental as an anaesthetic) was constitutionally compliant. Avoiding certain defeat, Jon dropped his, “the electric chair really isn’t cruel and unusual punishment” SCOTUS appeal.
Instead, because Nebraska, post-Mata, had a death penalty but no way of executing it, Jon drafted a Nebraska Unicameral Bill allowing for lethal injection (a la Kentucky’s protocol) as a method of carrying out the State’s death penalty. (Un)fortunately, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) hit the buffers finding someone to (legally) supply them with the Baze v Rees required sodium thiopental.
And this is the standing on the shoulders of pioneers bit…
When the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services couldn’t find a supplier, it went to Chris Harris, a dealer based in India, who arranged delivery of 485 grams of sodium thiopental – for which Nebraska paid $5,000.
But when the Swiss manufacturer of the sodium thiopental caught wind of what Harris had done, its CEO wrote the Chief Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court a letter – which was cc’d to Jon. The Swiss company CEO told the Court and Jon that Chris Harris lied – as Chris had told the Swiss company that the not for sale samples of sodium thiopental they’d given to him were headed for Zambia for “testing and evaluation purposes” – not to be sold to Nebraska to kill people.
The AG’s office appeared untroubled by this drug deal, with Jon referring to the matter as a “frivolous side-show“.
In the meantime, Michael Ryan, the man whose been sat on death row since the 80s, received a stay of execution while the court considers his lawyer, Jerry Soucie’s motion that he should have his sentence commuted to life, in part, because of the way in which NDCS acquired the sodium thiopental from middle-man dealer Chris Harris.
And just when you thought Nebraska couldn’t fall deeper into disgrace…
Former NDCS pharmacist, Dianne Booker has just filed suit, claiming she was fired for refusing to source non-FDA approved lethal injection drugs.
Does any of this “inspire respect, compel admiration”?
Regardless of the morality of the death penalty generally, this is about the Rule of Law – not “getting her done” at any cost.
It remains to be seen whether the pressing need to execute evaporates after the election.
In the meantime, like Willa Cather, I despair.