Conservative Nebraska bans the death penalty - a sign of the times?

Support for measure has been steadily declining

WASHINGTON, D.C. - “We’ll be praying that the Legislature overturns the veto, and we hope that others will do the same,” the Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska said Wednesday morning.

His prayers were answered by dinnertime.  Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature busted Republican Governor Pete Rickett’s veto and banned the death penalty.

Yes, Nebraska.

This was not a triumph of liberalism in Lincoln, but a change in conservatism. And there aren’t many states more conservative than Nebraska.

Huskers have voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964. They embraced Mitt Romney in 2012, 60 percent to 38 percent.

It has two Republican senators and two of its three House members are Republicans. Gov. Ricketts, the son of the founder of TD Ameritrade and the owner of the Chicago Cubs, is a tea party man.

But Nebraska isn’t Texas when out it comes to zeal for the gallows. The legislature first passed a ban on capital punishment in 1979, but the governor vetoed it. In 1999, the legislature enacted a moratorium on executions, but that was vetoed, too. 

There hasn’t been an execution since 1997. There are 10 men on Nebraska’s death row now. An eleventh died last week. Michael Ryan, convicted in a cult murder of two people, had been there since March 12, 1985.

The last time a rock-hard right state banned the death penalty was North Dakota, way back in 1973. The District of Columbia and 17 other states have also banned capital punishment. 

They include Massachusetts, where a federal jury just sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, to death. People’s views on capital punishment tend to change with emotional proximity.

But minds are changing.

Public support for the death penalty reached historic highs in the mid 1990s and it has declined steadily and steeply since. According to the Pew Research Center, 78 percent polled in 1995 supported the death penalty. That declined to just 56 percent earlier this year.

This shift is more pragmatic than moral.

In it’s most recent polling, Pew found that 63 percent believe that the death penalty is morally justified for some crimes and only 31 percent believe it is always morally wrong. But 61 percent think the death penalty doesn’t deter crime. And 71 percent believe innocent people have been executed. 

They’re right, of course. More than 140 people over the past 40 years who had been sentenced to death were later exonerated, pardoned or had the charges against them dropped.

In the past year, there has been a great deal of attention paid to several gruesomely bungled lethal injections and to shortages of the drugs needed to make these executions “humane.” This could also be moving public opinion.

Republicans, unsurprisingly, believe in capital punishment more than Independents and Democrats. But Pew found some interesting changes over the past four years. Support for the death penalty among conservative Republicans declined from 2011 to 2015 (from 84 percent to 77 percent) but support actually increased a bit among moderate or liberal Republicans.

This seems to be the dynamic in Nebraska’s 49-seat unicameral legislature. There were 17 new Senators elected last year, 14 of them were Republicans. They’re the ones who moved the needle, as it were.

Many Nebraska state legislators were deeply conflicted, saying something like, “I believe there are extraordinary cases where the death penalty is warranted; I believe there is a sense of justice served by capital punishment can; but capital punishment applied in the real world cannot be fair, flawless, efficient or just and I cannot defend it any more.” 

Like the Bishop of Lincoln, Senators looking to religion were guided more by “thou shalt not kill” than “an eye for an eye.”

Sen. Bob Krist, a Republican who has been in office since 2009, announced his vote against the death penalty this way:“I am Republican enough. I am conservative enough. And I am strong enough to follow through with my life convictions, which is life from conception to natural death.”

There are signs the whole country is going in this direction. The number of executions has been declining for more than a decade. The peak was in 1999 when 98 people were executed; there were 35 in 2014. Courts delivered 72 death sentences last year, way down from 315 in 1994 and 1996.

The Supreme Court effectively suspended the death penalty from 1972 to 1976. The country seemed to get by just fine. 

Later this summer, the Court will decide a case about whether the problems with lethal injections make it a “cruel and unusual” punishment and thus unconstitutional.  No one expects the Court to issue a broad, definitive ruling on the constitutionality of capital punishment.

But in Lincoln, a longtime lobbyist, Walt Radcliffe, told the Omaha World-Herald, “Strange things happen when you elect people who can think.”

[Also by Dick Meyer: Illinois, the new frontier in money and politics]

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