LINCOLN — The barrage of anonymous political postcards began arriving in the mailboxes of state senators a year ago.
The postcards featured colorful, computer-altered photographs, some depicting senators as “executioners” in medieval garb holding huge axes, with blood dripping from the images.
They accused some lawmakers who support the death penalty of being hypocrites because their churches believe capital punishment is wrong.
“Thou Shall Kill!” screamed the postcards, which were also sent to ministers and police chiefs in the districts of senators who support the death penalty.
While the postcards, mailed anonymously from Omaha, are a legal expression of a political view, the recipients are condemning them as insulting and perhaps threatening.
The state's most established anti-death penalty group says the postcards were improper and probably hurt its cause.
“We disagree with what amounts to personal attacks and disturbing imagery. We're trying to keep this a very reasonable debate about a failed policy,” said Stacy Anderson, the head of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “Getting personal isn't helpful to anybody.”
That's not the view of the executive director of an Omaha art gallery that featured an exhibit of the postcards in December.
Ben McQuillan of the Petshop Gallery in Benson said the postcards are a creative way to spark a conversation about the death penalty. He said that traditional means of lobbying aren't working and that he and other artists at his gallery were supportive of displaying the “political art.”
McQuillan rejected assertions by the anti-death penalty group that the postcards were over the top and counterproductive.
“We can do whatever we want,” McQuillan said. “We have a voice as part of the population, and we can take a position if we want to.”
The postcards raise the question of what is the proper way to lobby on a legislative issue and whether such groups should be required to identify themselves.
Whether or not the postcard campaign backfired is unclear, but a debate about capital punishment is on the back burner in 2014.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, the Legislature's leading foe of capital punishment, said he doesn't plan to push the issue this year. Chambers said he has other issues to pursue and lacks the votes to halt an expected filibuster.
To be sure, there have been disagreements before within political movements about lobbying tactics.
A few years ago, an anti-abortion group displayed huge, graphic posters of aborted fetuses while picketing a Lincoln church attended by a physician who performed abortions. Some in the anti-abortion movement rejected the posters' graphic nature.
Efforts to end alcohol sales in the reservation border town of Whiteclay, Neb., have ranged from the traditional, like seeking better law enforcement and removing liquor licenses, to the extreme, like chugging a beer in front of a state liquor board and blockades of a state highway.
The death penalty postcard protest began with confusion because the initial mailings didn't identify the senders. That led some to link the postcards to Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which initially believed it was an attempt to sabotage the group's efforts.
Perhaps as many as 2,000 of the anti-death penalty postcards have been sent over the past year, many in batches of four or five at once to senators who opposed repeal of the death penalty. The postcards also were sent to the senators' ministers and priests and to other church leaders in their districts, as well as to members of the media.
In December, the postcards began including a return address for the Petshop Gallery. They invited recipients to attend an art show opening at the gallery Dec. 6, as part of a “First Friday” art crawl in Benson.
Those who created the postcards were not identified at the showing, and McQuillan, the gallery director, declined to name them. He said more than one person was involved. He did forward a message to the leader of the postcard group, who called The World-Herald from a pay telephone.
The man, who did not provide his name, said the postcards were produced by a group of artists and activists from the Omaha area called the “Mail-Art Cooperative.” He said the members want to remain anonymous, saying identification “detracts” from their message.
The anonymity doesn't violate state political accountability laws, said Frank Daley, executive director of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
Daley said his commission regulates only campaign materials, and a 1995 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court protects some forms of “anonymous speech,” as long as it's done by a grassroots group with its own money.
A bill pending in the Legislature might change that, at least during a political campaign. Legislative Bill 747 would require groups to identify themselves if they distribute postcards or other election materials within 30 days before an election, if they identify a specific candidate.
The death penalty postcards didn't inspire the bill, said its author, State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln. But he said it's unfair to send out such mailings without some identification.
“If you're unwilling to identify who you are, then your message is unworthy of attention,” said Avery, who was among some death penalty opponents who also received some of the postcards.
A priest who received dozens of postcards went looking, in vain, for the authors.
The Rev. Dan Kampschneider of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Omaha, who opposes the death penalty, was pictured on some of the cards, as were altered images of his church. On one card, he was pictured with State Sen. Pete Pirsch, a parishioner who supports the death penalty.
Kampschneider said he gives the senders high marks for effort but low marks for being persuasive.
“They're losing more effectiveness than they're gaining. It's pressure and a type of harassment,” he said.
Support for repealing the death penalty reached a high point last year. The 2013 session marked the first time in several years that a majority of state senators supported repeal, with perhaps as many as 27 lawmakers in favor. That is enough to pass a law, but supporters of capital punishment filibustered the bill, and anti-death penalty forces say they lack the 33 votes needed to bring the issue to a vote.
Anderson's anti-death penalty group wrote to state senators to disavow any connection to the postcards. Anderson said she also sent a letter to the postcard group at the Benson gallery in December, asking them to refrain from personal attacks.
“We absolutely support their right to engage in any activities they want to,” she said. “It's just not how we'd conduct ourselves.”
One target of the postcards, Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, said he considers the postcards illegal because they didn't identify the sender. Christensen is portrayed in the postcards as an executioner, next to the words “Thou shall kill!”
“You'll never convince me to change my position by attacking me,” he said.
Pirsch, a former criminal prosecutor, said he's most bothered that the postcards were anonymous.
“I don't have a tremendous amount of respect for someone who hides in the shadows,” he said.
Many of the postcards said senators who oppose abortion rights and support the death penalty are “consistently inconsistent,” particularly compared with the beliefs of the churches they attend.
Kampschneider, the Omaha priest, said he knows many Catholics support the death penalty, even though the church opposes it.
“It's a challenge in our church,” Kampschneider said. “(Those involved) must think that if I tell (parishioners) to do something, it will be that way. It's not quite like that.”