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Nebraska Becomes 19th US State to Abolish Death Penalty

Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln. (Photo: Tim O'Brien)

Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln. (Photo: Tim O’Brien)

Lawmakers in Nebraska overrode a governor’s veto of their vote to repeal the death penalty, becoming the 19th US state—and the first conservative state in more than 40 years—to abolish capital punishment.

By a vote of 30-19 following hours of emotional debate, the Nebraska legislature defied Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of its earlier 32-15 vote in favor of abolition. There are 35 Republicans, 13 Democrats and one independent in the unicameral legislature. The New York Times reports dozens of spectators in the balcony burst into celebration after the override vote was completed.

Gov. Ricketts issued a statement lamenting the legislature’s vote.

“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” Ricketts said in a statement. “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.”

But lawmakers who supported repeal struck a triumphant tone.

“Today we are doing something that transcends me, that transcends this legislature, that transcends this state,” said Senator Ernie Chambers (Independent-Omaha), a longtime death penalty opponent who sponsored the bill. “We are talking about human dignity.”

The majority of Nebraskans still support capital punishment, and many expressed their displeasure that their state was joining 18 states and the rest of the Western world in rejecting it.

“I can’t even put into words how disappointed I am,” Christine Tuttle told the Omaha World-Herald. Tuttle’s mother Evone was one of five people murdered by three men during a 2002 bank robbery in Norfolk, northwest of Omaha. “If we have to go out and get signatures and put this to a vote of the people, that’s what we’re going to do,” added Tuttle. “There’s got to be another way.”

To that end, Republican state Sen. Beau McCoy announced the formation of Nebraskans for Justice, a group that will pursue a ballot initiative to reinstate the death penalty.

Others said they supported abolition. Don Johnson, a retired fisherman, told the New York Times he doesn’t think execution proponents think about how capital punishment is applied, and that it goes against a central tenet of Christianity.

“If you really follow Jesus’s teachings, thou shall not kill, you know,” said Johnson.

Nebraska becomes the first Republican-controlled state to end executions since North Dakota in 1973. NPR reports Nebraska previously attempted to abolition the death penalty in 1979, but a similar measure was vetoed by then-Gov. Charles Thone.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have now abolished capital punishment. Most recently, Maryland (2013), Connecticut (2012) and Illinois (2011) have ended executions.

In February, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, announced a moratorium on executions, calling the state’s capital punishment system “flawed, ineffective, unjust and expensive.”

Last year, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) also suspended executions in the progressive state, citing “too many flaws” in a system he described as “unequal.” Gov. John Kitzhaber in neighboring Oregon, also a Democrat, declared a moratorium on executions for the rest of his term in November 2011, calling capital punishment “a perversion of justice.”

Although around 60 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, support for capital punishment is at a 40-year low, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Opposition to capital punishment is growing as more Americans are educated about the facts about the death penalty. There is no evidence that executions deter crime, and plenty of evidence that capital punishment is discriminatory and applied disproportionately against the poor. There is also growing evidence that innocent people have been executed, and multiple recent botched executions have highlighted what critics call the unconstitutionally cruel and unusual nature of what they call state-sanctioned murder.

One abolitionist argument that appeals to fiscal conservatives is that the death penalty is much more expensive than life imprisonment. In California, taxpayers have spent more than $4 billion maintaining capital punishment since it was reinstated in 1978. That’s $308 million for each of the 13 executions that have occurred during that period.

Indeed, fiscal and religious concerns, along with the strongly-held conservative belief that government management cannot be trusted, are driving a shift to a more anti-death penalty stance among right-wing lawmakers and voters, as reflected in the Nebraska vote.

“The conservative Republicans’ positions as expressed in Nebraska are basically a microcosm of what’s going on with conservatives about the death penalty nationwide,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit that provides information and analysis related to the death penalty. “Abolition in Nebraska could empower conservatives in other ‘red’ states to move forward because they know it can be done,” Dunham told the Christian Science Monitor.

As American support for the death penalty wanes, so does the number of people executed across the country. So far this year, 14 people have been put to death. Half of these executions occurred in Texas, where public support for capital punishment remains very high. US executions have been steadily declining this century, from a peak of 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014.

The United States is the only Western nation that still executes prisoners. The US executes the most people after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and more people than North Korea. The US also ranks among only a handful of nations which execute mentally ill prisoners in violation of international law.

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