One of the most conservative states in the country made history on Wednesday by outlawing a very fundamental and long standing doctrine of the Republican Party. Nebraska just became the first Republican-controlled state in more than 40 years to totally abolish the death penalty.
Nebraska’s Governor, Pete Ricketts, actually vetoed a bill on Tuesday passed by the state’s Legislature which would have repealed their death penalty law. But despite Governor Ricketts’ best efforts, lawmakers voted again the very next day and were able to cross party lines and come up with exactly enough votes to override his veto with a margin of 30-to-19.
The votes this week come at the end of a month-long fight between the majority of the state lawmakers and the Governor, who had the support of law enforcement officials and several family members of murder victims. Ricketts has all along been a staunch supporter of capital punishment and he has spent a great amount of time desperately lobbying across the state to make his case. But in the end it just wasn’t enough.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha was the lead sponsor of the bill. And he very effectively made the case that overriding the Governor’s veto came down to a very simple concept of humanity.
“We are talking about human dignity, and we’re not even talking necessarily about the human dignity of the ones you all call the worst of the worst. We are talking about ourselves. Are you better than yourself when you say do to that one what that one did. You are supposed to be above that.”
Following the vote, Ricketts put out a statement of his own saying,
“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families. 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.”
The executive director of Nebraska’s American Civil Liberties Union, Danielle Conrad, also put out a statement following Wednesday’s vote saying,
“The Nebraska Legislature, with the world watching, made their voice a part of the national conversation. We are a nation that is turning away from the death penalty. This victory stands as a testament to what can happen in our sister states. Our work helped to identify what we were hearing and seeing on the ground and across the nation a majority of voters favor smart alternatives like life in prison that put public safety first.”
Many believe that Nebraska’s vote on Wednesday is representative of a growing trend in this country. They now join 18 other states, plus the District of Columbia in completely banning the death penalty.
And as more and more states continue to debate this long-standing and very controversial method of deadly punishment in this country, it seems that we are actually watching a shift in public support. Although polling still shows a majority of Americans believe in capitol punishment, that support has been rapidly dwindling in recent years. According to polls released by the Pew Research Center and CBS News in April, public support for the death penalty has fallen to a record low at 56%.
Traditionally far more Republicans in this country have been in favor of the death penalty than Democrats. And while that is certainly still true, support on both sides has been consistently declining by significant margins. Currently the Dems are polling at just 40% in favor, while the Repubs are at 77%.
One of the reasons for this shift may be that more and more people are realizing that capital punishment is not only inefficient and expensive, but that it’s also increasingly becoming out of touch with the country’s ever changing and evolving value system. Some have great concern about all of the people who have been wrongly convicted. Last year a record number of people were exonerated in the U.S. far surpassing the previous record set in 2012.
And for an increasing number of Christians it has become impossible to reconcile deadly punishment with the Commandment that thou shall not kill. Catholic bishops across the country have been consistently saying that the church not only believes that the death penalty does not deter crime, but also that it does nothing to promote the common good or safety of the society.
Another likely reason is that the public has become aware of the increasing logistical problems with lethal injections. The drugs needed for lethal injections have become virtually impossible to obtain because the European manufacturers we’ve always depended on will no longer sell them to American prisons based on moral and ethical objections. Even Texas, who by far executes more people than any other state in the union, currently only has enough of the needed drugs to perform one more lethal injection.
And as states scramble to find drug alternatives, some have actually decided to turn to much more disturbing methods of execution. In March, Utah legalized firing squads and several other states including Arkansas, Wyoming, and Idaho are considering doing the same. In addition Tennessee has legalized the electric chair and Oklahoma has decided to use nitrogen gas.
But even with these alarming problems and inhumane decisions, the bright spot is that the country really does seem to be coming to its senses. It’s also quite encouraging that even Republicans are starting to see the light. As a matter of fact, a growing number of GOP big dogs have actually been making public statements lately in favor of total abolishing the death penalty nationwide….including their favorite megadonors Charles and David Koch. If that doesn’t give you hope, nothing will.