LIFE AT ALL STAGES
Retroactive Abortion? Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Catholic, Resurrects Death Penalty
Even as the Church works to abolish the death penalty, one devout member has fought to bring it back into use, and might succeed this week.
What might be called retroactive abortion in particular circumstances is better than OK with Gov. Pete Ricketts, as he may well demonstrate on Tuesday when a double murderer is scheduled to become the first person executed in Nebraska in two decades.
“We need to have capital punishment in his state,” says Ricketts, an avowed Catholic who otherwise adheres vocally to his church’s pro-life edicts.
He allows, “there’s a number of people expressing their difference of opinion with regard to this, but the people of Nebraska have been very clear.”
Those expressing their opinion happen to include Pope Francis, who early this month revised the Catechism to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
“[The church] works with determination for its abolition worldwide,” the official summary of the church’s basic principles as taught to children now reads.
The Nebraska state legislature was three years ahead of the Pope in 2015, when it voted 32-15 to abolish the death penalty.
Ricketts promptly vetoed the bill, saying the only problem he had with capital punishment was that it was administered too slowly and too seldom.
After the legislature overrode his veto, Ricketts and his father, Joe, dipped into some of the wealth the family accumulated as the major stakeholders of TD Ameritrade and the Chicago Cubs. They spent $300,000 pushing a successful voter referendum to reinstate the death penalty.
“The people of Nebraska spoke loud and clear that they wanted to retain capital punishment as part of our overall state laws to protect public safety,” Pete Ricketts said, as if the vote had been a spontaneous expression of the popular will.
And, as if he would be only performing his duty, he added, “our job is to carry that out.”
Pete Ricketts continued to share the Church’s opinion that a woman did not have the right to choose the course of her pregnancy.
“I believe that abortion is inherently wrong,” Ricketts has said. “Nebraska is a pro-life state.”
But now that he had restored the state’s right to end the lives of condemned murderers, he pledged to speed up the process and deal out death as quickly as the law allows.
Ricketts was undeterred when the Pope declared that the Right to Life extended even to murderers. And Ricketts is not just some causal communicant at his local church. He is a knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, a Catholic organization that dates back to the First Crusade. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher supposedly stands where Jesus Christ suffered the death penalty. Members of the Order pledge their loyalty to the Pope.
“Absolute fidelity to the Supreme Pontiff,” the order’s handbook reads. “According to the teachings of the church.”
Ricketts seems to be demonstrating less than absolute fidelity to Pope Francis in the matter of capital punishment. The leader of the Order, Edwin Cardinal O’Brien, told the Daily Beast on Friday that a conflict between personal belief and church teachings “is a matter of conscience.”
“I think anybody who takes the church seriously has to give serious consideration to what the church is saying,” he suggested.
Should the person feel compelled to go against those teachings, O’Brien said, it becomes a matter for a power even higher than the Pope.
“Then they follow their conscience and leave it up to God,” O’Brien said.
When it comes to the death penalty, O’Brien said, “I can see why people are stuck in the old way,” but, “there’s no absolute necessity to take a life if other means of punishment are possible.” He observed that church doctrine was evolving to embrace fully a fundamental principle, one in opposition to even retroactive abortion.
“The respect of life at all stages,” he said.
O’Brien has not spoken to Ricketts about capital punishment, but the cardinal indicated that if he did have the opportunity, he would not scold, but rather seek to take the governor step by step through his reasoning.
If Ricketts' public statements are a guide, he has a visceral though unsubstantiated belief in the deterrent powers of the death penalty. He is so enamored with capital punishment that he initially threatened to start carrying it out anyway after the state legislature abolished it.
Ricketts does not seem greatly worried by the potential for convicting the innocent, as was the case with the Beatrice Six, a half dozen men and women who were convicted of a 1985 murder in Nebraska and served a total of 77 years before being exonerated by DNA in 2009.
Some have suggested that Ricketts was influenced by the fate of his first cousin Ronna Anne Bremer, a 22-year-old pregnant mother of two who disappeared in Missouri in 1988. A skull that was mailed to the local sheriff in 1991 was subsequently identified as hers.
But nobody was arrested in that case and the death penalty had been in effect in Missouri since 1976.
Whatever makes Ricketts such a devout believer in the benefits of executions, his father signaled similar feelings when he kicked in $100,000 of his own to beat the ban.
Joe Ricketts does not appear to have perceived any irony in following this effort to help bring back the death penalty in Nebraska by putting more than $40 million into establishing a religious retreat on the Platte River that features a 2,500-foot trail winding past what has been billed as the world’s most “dramatic and dynamic” sculptural representations of the Stations of the Cross. The 12th station as presented in the state where the Ricketts reestablished capital punishment includes not just the cross where Jesus died, but also the crosses on either side of him where two thieves were executed.
As the Cloisters on the Platte prepared to open last month, Joe Ricketts spoke to a reporter from the Omaha World-Herald about the construction of the 900-plus acre retreat that features an underground parking garbage made to resemble a cliff face and grassy expanses the paper would describe as a “akin to a country club mixed with a lake resort.” One quote was jarring, as it ran along with a photo of him standing in front of the 14th and final Station, which features a representation of the body of the executed Christ in his tomb.
“I’m really quite pleased,” Ricketts said.
That Christ Himself suffered capital punishment was no doubt part of what prompted the Pope’s revision of the Catechism a week later. The visitors to the retreat who pass along the Stations will hopefully include that loophole-less teaching in their contemplations.
The retreat is 48 miles and about as many minutes driving away from the Nebraska State Prison in Lincoln, where the execution that the Ricketts, son and father, helped make possible is scheduled to be carried out at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The last execution in Nebraska was conducted with an electric chair, but this one is to be by lethal injection.
The pharmaceutical firm Fresenius Kabi—the apparent manufacturer of two of the four drugs to be employed—sought a temporary restraining order in federal court on the grounds that association with an execution would damage its reputation. But the state argued against any delay, noting that the potassium chloride in question had a use-by date of August 31 and there appeared to be no way to replace it.
“Put simply, the window will close on August 31, 2018,” the state argued in court papers. “Possibly for good.”
On Friday afternoon, Judge Richard Kopf found in favor of the state. He noted in his ruling that the condemned man, 60-year-old Carey Dean Moore, “has spent nearly four decades on death row for the coldly calculated 1979 killings of Omaha cabdrivers Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland.”
The judge continued, “Before the present one, the Nebraska Supreme Court has given Mr. Moore seven execution dates. This time Mr. Moore wants his death sentence to be carried out, and he has directed his court-appointed lawyers to do nothing. Indeed, Mr. Moore has sought to have his lawyers dismissed. There is absolutely no doubt of his competence or his guilt.”
The judge also found that the company had made widely known its opposition to this use of its products and was not likely to be held responsible.
“The harm to Plaintiff if I do nothing seems vanishingly small to none at all,” the judge said “On the other hand, the State of Nebraska will be greatly and irreparably harmed if I grant the Plaintiff the relief it seeks.”
The judge offered a reminder that in November of 2016, the state’s voters had passed the referendum reestablishing the death penalty.
“The people of Nebraska have spoken,” the judge said “Any delay now is tantamount to nullifying Nebraska law, particularly given the rapidly approaching expiration of two of the drugs and the total absence of any feasible alternatives.”
He went on, “Many people of good faith object to the death penalty. However, the electoral processes of Nebraska have worked as they were intended. The Nebraska Legislature decided to kill the death penalty, and after that, and very recently, the people decided to resurrect it.”
The judge did not likely intend to jar anybody by employing the verb “resurrect” in connection with a referendum initiated and pushed by a governor who is a knight of the Holy Sepulcher yet ignores the Church’s latest teaching regarding capital punishment.
Resurrected retroactive abortion is slated to proceed over the objections of Ricketts’ parish priest and the bishops of Nebraska in accordance with the Pope. A last-ditch appeal by the drug company is not expected to stop what Ricketts himself could at least try to stop if he suffered a last-minute change of heart and heeded his Church's teaching. Nebraska is one of only three states where the governor does not have the unilateral power to grant a reprieve. A commutation can only come from the Board of Pardons, which includes the governor, but also the Nebraska secretary of state and the state attorney general.
The witnesses at the Nebraska State Prison are expected to include Kenny Helgeland, elder son of murdered cabbie Maynard Helgeland. Kenny plans to wear a t-shirt stenciled with the name of the company for which he and his father drove and the number of the cab they shared.
“Happy Cab 63”
The younger son, Steve Helgeland, plans to be at the prison in Lincoln, but has decided against being in the death chamber. He says that his family wants only for it all to end, however that is accomplished.
“As long as it’s over,” he told the Daily Beast on Saturday. “Do whatever they are supposed to do or lock him up and throw away the key. That’s kind of where we’re all at. We’re just tired of seeing him in the newspaper.”
Steve and his siblings have grown weary of all the attention that has been paid to the killer over the decades. Each new execution date has been accompanied by stories about the killer and photos of him in the papers. The press has reported how the killer had been beaten and whipped and burned by his father so that he could not attend school and then battered some more for not going. The stories of the killer’s arrest noted that his mother was herself a cabbie and a driver she knew had sold the murder weapon to the killer, who was 21 at the time. The killer has an identical twin brother and it was big news when they managed to briefly switch places in prison. A much younger brother was convicted of playing a part in the murders when he was just 14 and there were other stories when he was paroled.
As Steve Helgeland did not fail to note, there was precious little reported about the victims other than that they were both 47 and the killer had targeted them because they were “older.” No mention was made of them both being veterans of the Korean War and both working second jobs in construction.
“Just a couple of hard-working guys trying to make it,” the younger Helgeland son told the Daily Beast.
Steve Helgeland said that his father was born in Mitchell, South Dakota to an unwed mother, a rough way to begin life in the 1930s. The father boxed for a time and was out of town for a bout when he arrived at a motel with a fellow pugilist who happened to be black. The motel barred the other man and Maynard went with him to the local YMCA.
“He understood what it was like to be ostracized,” Steve later said.
Maynard also suffered the continuing effects of having grown up ostracized. He fell victim to depression and alcoholism and became estranged from his wife and family. One bit of luck came when he escaped injury as fire engulfed the house trailer where he was living. What initially seemed to be terrible luck came when he was sleeping in a car during the winter and lost both his feet to frostbite.
But having hit bottom, Maynard resolved to climb back up. He became and remained sober and set out to reconnect with his children, who included lone daughter, Lori Helgeland-Renken. Maynard moved in with Kenny and together they drove car 63 at Happy Cab.
On August 22, 1979, fellow Omaha cabbie and Korean War vet Ruel Van Ness was found shot to death. He left 10 children.
Maynard and his son kept driving together. Kenney took off August 26, because he had arranged to go with a friend to the horse races in Lincoln.
Steven was 13 and living with his mother and stepfather in Wisconsin. He was in class when she came to the school to tell him his father had been murdered. He would never get as much chance as his brother and sister had to reconnect with their dad.
“[The killer] stole that opportunity,” Steve told the Daily Beast.
Steve remembers his father as so uncommonly generous that if he had two dollars, he would give both to somebody who needed them. The son figured the killer would have only needed to ask for money if he had not really been bent on murder.
Maynard’s own tough upbringing had made him the very opposite of vicious.
“He was the kind of guy who would bring home a stray cat or dog,” Steve said.
Maynard was not Catholic or manifestly religious beyond watching the first great televangelist.
“If Billy Graham was on TV, he was watching Billy Graham,” Steve reported.
And the Pope’s pronouncement regarding capital punishment would not likely have made much of an impression on Maynard. The same is likely also true of Ruel Van Ness.
The families of both the murdered men speak of the pain inflicted by seemingly endless delays over the past four decades. More than anything else, they seem glad that it may finally be over.
One problem with capital punishment not fully contemplated by its supporters and beyond the objections registered by the Catholic Church is that it is a necessarily prolonged process. Appeal follows appeal follows appeal so long as a society seeks to avoid executing innocent people and appreciates the irrevocable enormity of taking a life.
Had the killer been sentenced to life without possibility of parole, that would have been that decades ago. The killer may have found eternal obscurity much harder to bear than all the articles and photos and discussion about him these past years.
In states such as New York, killers are too often freed. Recent examples include a multiple cop killer and a monster who shot eight children and three women to death.
Nebraska appears to have granted only three reprieves from life sentences in recent times, but even that was too many. One of the beneficiaries was subsequently arrested for sexually assaulting a 10 year-old girl.
On Tuesday, Kenny Helgeland will return to Lincoln, where he went to see horse races on that night in 1979 when his father was murdered and where he now expects to witness the killer’s execution.
Steve Helgeland will also be there. He will then return to serving as the Special Education Director at the Hill City School District in Hilly City, South Dakota, where he keeps alive the generous, inclusive and resilient spirit of the father who was taken from him much too soon.
On the district’s website, Steve writes “A little about myself. I have worked as an elementary general education teacher, a middle school/high school special education teacher, and a special education director. I have worked in districts in eastern South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming… I am married with three children…”
The son of the hard-working guy who always took home stray cats and dogs adds:
“…and too many pets to list. “
The lone Helgeland daughter, Lori, does not plan to be in Lincoln. She figures on staying home in Mount Vernon, South Dakota. Her daughter is scheduled to have a baby on Tuesday.
Steve described the arrival of this new life with a term that would draw only happy agreement from both the Pope and Ricketts, along with decent folks of all faiths.
“A blessing,” Steve said.
“I understand it's a little boy,” he added “Sounds like this one will be named after his great grandfather.”
Forget the killer, alive or dead.
Welcome to the world, little Maynard.