When a good friend of ACCR’s heard that the reddest of red states, Nebraska, had voted to repeal its death penalty, he emailed: “Nebraska? Seriously?” Well, yes. Not only did the Nebraska legislature vote to repeal, but it overrode the veto of their Republican governor, Pete Ricketts. The vote crossed party and even religious lines – at one point in the final debate the sponsor of the bill, the great and long-standing Senator Ernie Chambers was accused of not believing in God – and legislators withstood a serious lobbying effort by law enforcement as well. Given that this vote busted up all sorts of stereotypes, the arguments that worked so well in Lincoln bear close examination.
Was it the drugs, or more accurately, the lack of drugs? No doubt. The Governor was so intent on keeping his state in the death penalty column that he spent $51,000 of taxpayer money to obtain lethal drugs from West Bengal, India – “the functionality of the death penalty in Nebraska has been a management issue that I have promised to resolve,” Ricketts declared. But in debate only minutes before the final vote, Ernie Chambers urged his fellow legislators to listen carefully to the Governor’s words: “He said he paid for the drugs, he never said he actually had them.” Nor was there ever any assurance that the drugs from West Bengal would meet constitutional standards for quality – did Nebraska really want to join the line of states that had suffered through a botched execution?
Was it the fact that the death penalty hadn’t been working the way it had been advertised, and that the state hadn’t executed anyone in almost 20 years? Certainly. Several legislators pointed out the risk of executing an innocent person, and others made the more nuanced but equally important point that the death penalty coerces innocent people toward an improper guilty plea out of fear of possible execution. (For a good example from Philadelphia, see http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/08/the-confessions-of-innocent-men/278363/.
Was it that the Nebraska legislature got tired of wasting money? Of course. “The taxpayers have not gotten the bang for their buck on this death penalty for almost 20 years,” said Senator Colby Coash, a Republican. “This program is broken. How many years will people stand up and say we need this?” Legislators interspersed the “failed government program” motif with the words of Justice Stevens and the late Justice Blackmun, both of whom concluded after many years of tinkering that the death penalty simply couldn’t be fixed.
And was there a clear recognition – particularly in this day of supermax prisons and plummeting crime rates and the DNA-infused recognition of how easily we can and do make mistakes – that the death penalty is not morally justified? Over and over again legislators stepped to the podium to point out the fallacy of deterrence, the myth of closure for victims who must suffer through mandatory death penalty appeals, and the plain truth that retribution is just a fancy word for vengeance. Finally, many relied on the conclusion that seems so obvious to so many of us – it is simply wrong to kill.
What can we take from repeal by a state so conservative that it hasn’t seen a Democratic governor or senator this century? That injustice resonates for everyone, that the horror of a botched execution is no less horrifying if you prefer smaller government, that conservatives are no more in favor of wasting money than liberals, that unnecessary killing is wrong, and that putting executions under color of law may make them legal but doesn’t make them right.
It took 30 votes to override the governor’s veto in Nebraska, but no one rushed to take credit. As Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann said, his vote to override was not the deciding one. “We were all No. 30.” And today we are all Nebraskans.