Death Penalty

May 27, 2015; New York Times

The elimination of the death penalty in Nebraska may presage more changes among the remaining death penalty states. In the current climate of an appetite for change in criminal justice, will the problems associated with the death penalty outweigh the benefits in the minds of legislators?

The New York Times writes that Nebraska is the first conservative state in more than 40 years to eliminate the death penalty, replacing it with life in prison. The vote was 30 to 19, although the state’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, had lobbied hard to retain the penalty and had vetoed the bill to remove it just the day before. Thirty votes were required for an override.

With this vote, Nebraska, which has not executed anyone since 1997, becomes the 19th state to ban the death penalty. It is yet to be seen if other conservative states follow suit, although it is more likely given the current bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform. The conservative arguments for the ban are a mix that includes concern about wrongful convictions, costs, and religious principle.

Governor Ricketts responded to the vote in a statement that read, in part:

“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.”

Just a day before the vote, after Mr. Ricketts signed a veto of the death penalty repeal bill, Nebraska’s Catholic bishops issued a statement criticizing the veto. “We remain convinced that the death penalty does not deter crime, nor does it make Nebraska safer or promote the common good in our state,” they said.

In the last eight years, Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, and New Jersey have banned the death penalty, but no conservative state has done so since North Dakota did in 1973. Other states have moratoriums in place, and still others are unable to access the drugs they need for lethal injections due to an unwillingness by European and U.S.-based compounding pharmacies to supply them.—Ruth McCambridge