Government & Politics

The Debate Over the Death Penalty Has Just Begun

Nebraska's conservative legislature overruled the Republican Governor, stopping the death penalty in the state

Lewis Morris · May 29, 2015

Nebraska lawmakers voted Wednesday to make that state the 19th to ban the death penalty. Republican Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed earlier in the week the bill that sought to repeal the state’s death penalty statute. According to Nebraska law, it takes 30 of 49 senators in the unicameral legislature to override a gubernatorial veto. And 30 votes are exactly what death penalty opponents got. The original bill was passed last week and sent to Ricketts with 32 votes.

Ricketts stated in his veto of the original legislation, “Repealing the death penalty sends the wrong message to Nebraskans who overwhelmingly support capital punishment and look to government to strengthen public safety, not weaken it.”

The governor burned phone lines and called in favors in an effort to sustain his veto, but he was ultimately unable to do so. Still, with a thin majority supporting the original ban, and the thinnest of majorities overriding Ricketts’ veto, it is almost guaranteed that this issue will come up again next term. The governor vowed, “While the legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue.”

Nebraska’s rejection of the death penalty is certainly being heralded in liberal circles as a victory. Advocates for the rights of convicted criminals — often acting without any regard for the rights of victims and their families — have been marching forward to make America a death penalty-free country for decades. And they have been experiencing some success lately.

Of the states without the death penalty, a third have banned it after 2007. Many of those actions have been motivated by concerns that capital punishment is cruel and unusual, grossly misapplied across various cases, and inherently racist. (This last reason is patently false. White defendants make up 55% of all executions since 1976, with blacks and Latinos comprising 34% and 8%, respectively. Seventy-five percent of the victims have been white, with 15% black and close to 7% Latino.)

Just the same, Nebraska’s case is unique. It is the most conservative state to ban the death penalty, and the reasons that motivated lawmakers to support the ban are varied.

State Sen. Mark Kolterman, a self-professed conservative, reasoned that support for the death penalty ran afoul of his commitment to protecting life. He also expressed fiscal concerns: “The state has spent approximately $100 million on death penalty related cases since 1976, but has only executed three people.”

The fiscal argument rang true for a number of senators who supported the ban, but the lawmakers who wanted to keep the punishment in place reasoned that Nebraska has executed few criminals under the statute. Ricketts wrote in the Omaha World-Herald, “In Nebraska, there are only 10 inmates on death row. Unlike California or Texas, which have hundreds on death row, we use the death penalty judiciously and prudently. Retaining the death penalty is not only important to the integrity of criminal prosecutions but also vitally important to good prison management and protecting our prison officials.”

A majority of Americans support the death penalty, although that margin has been declining over time. As might be expected, Republicans overwhelmingly support it, while a majority of Democrats do not.

Liberals should not be heartened by Nebraska’s sudden turn as a conservative state. The reasons for voting against the bill are practical in scope — consider the fiscal arguments. This is something Democrats are not known for. The final chapter in Nebraska’s death penalty saga remains unwritten despite this latest vote. Like many states across the country, the battle in Nebraska will continue to rage over whether capital punishment is just or cruel.

Recent advances in DNA research have exonerated a number of people wrongly accused of crimes that would have led to their execution, casting a dark shadow over the judicial system and its application of the death penalty. Additionally, there is the argument over method, with many now claiming that lethal injection is a cruel form of execution. Some states such as Utah, Tennessee and Oklahoma have looked into alternative methods.

Nebraska’s ban of the death penalty is not the beginning of the end of capital punishment in the United States, nor is it a last gasp for the movement to end it. It is, more appropriately, another salvo in an ongoing battle in which both sides air their grievances and continue their work.

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