The state of Nebraska executed Matthew Alan Nowinski at 10:47AM on a Friday, some 32 hours before the biggest Husker football game in at least a decade. In fact, in the days leading up to the execution, 200 or so citizens had written to the governor asking for a stay, and most of these letters said some version of the same thing: Nowinski was a fan. I support the death penalty. We don’t want the bad karma. What’s the harm in waiting a few days, or, better yet, until the season’s over? If he’s gonna go anyway, surely a month or two either way doesn’t matter, and doesn’t this happen all the time?
For his part, the governor conferenced with staff that morning, and at least one advisor urged him to issue the stay. After all, the letters were right. Nowinski would be dead no matter what. Why risk angering a couple hundred diehards and maybe losing some votes when we could just as easily say it’s about reconfirming a few details or because our fentanyl supplier fell through or any number of other procedural reasons, this advisor argued, and the governor himself appeared to consider it. Then someone else piped up and said there was no way a couple hundred Husker fans who supported the death penalty were ever gonna vote for a Democrat, and you know how conspiratorial everyone is these days. We delay and give a bogus reason, well, then the press comes sniffing around. And if we’re honest, if we say we’re worried about bad karma, then isn’t that like saying the death penalty’s something we should be ashamed of when we all know it’s nothing if not the truest and purest form of justice we got? Not to mention biblically sanctioned, and if we frame it as an act of mercy, well, then we look like bleeding hearts, don’t we, and remember what they did to Dukakis? Too much risk, not enough reward, she said.
Ultimately, the latter argument won out. A small group of protestors gathered outside the state prison in Lincoln, most of them Catholic nuns who didn’t care much about football (although there was one, Sister Perpetua William, who pinned a big red N to her overcoat and talked to one of the journalists about the days of Tom Osborne and Tommy Frazier, and how, if she wore the big hat, one of them would be the real St. Thomas and the other beatified at the very least). They prayed for Nowinski. Read letters from his family talking up his generosity, how he used to buy drinks for the whole bar after touchdowns. Asked God to bring healing and peace to all touched by his crimes.
Inside the execution room, Nowinski knew very little about any of this and cared even less. He’d resigned himself to his fate years ago. He had lasagna for his last meal. Chatted with the guards about Ohio State being overrated and let it be known that, were he a betting man, he’d sure as hell take the points. When it came time for his last words, he gave a wave in the direction of his witnesses and said, “I love my Huskers, but they get their asses kicked tomorrow, no way I’ll be sorry I missed it.” Somebody laughed quietly. Then they brought out the needle, and everything went mostly as expected. Nowinski coughed a few times. At the very end, according to one of the media observers, he “turned the deepest red you ever saw,” though exactly what kind of omen this was nobody could quite figure.
Brett Biebel teaches writing and literature at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. His (mostly very) short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Chautauqua, the minnesota review, Bridge Eight, Great River Review, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a collection of stories about football, masculinity, and the general state of the American Midwest and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.