Thursday, May 28, 2015

Nebraska Bans Death Penalty

As I wrote not even two weeks ago, if they had the votes to override the governor's veto, it would be an historic moment in the history of the death penalty (a red state banning the machinery of death). Yesterday, the Nebraska legislature made history:

Nebraska on Wednesday became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, with lawmakers defying their Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, a staunch supporter of capital punishment who had lobbied vigorously against banning it.

After more than two hours of emotional speeches at the Capitol here, the Legislature, by a 30-to-19 vote that cut across party lines, overrode the governor’s veto of a bill repealing the state’s death penalty law. After the repeal measure passed, by just enough votes to overcome the veto, dozens of spectators in the balcony burst into celebration.

Opponents of the death penalty here were able to build a coalition that spanned the ideological spectrum by winning the support of Republican legislators who said they believed capital punishment was inefficient, expensive and out of place with their party’s values, as well as that of lawmakers who cited religious or moral reasons for supporting the repeal. Nebraska joins 18 other states and Washington, D.C., in banning the death penalty.

Though it is not clear that other Republican-dominated states will follow Nebraska’s example, Wednesday’s vote came at a time when liberals and conservatives have been finding common ground on a range of criminal justice issues in Washington and around the country.
Predictably, the hardcores are pushing back, arguing everything from an apocalypse of violent crime soon that is bound to follow, to "what's the big deal, they barely killed anyone out there anyway" malaprops.

Still, as this editorial and accompanying Time cover story make clear, the clock is definitely running on the lifespan of the death penalty.
Even in Texas, which leads the nation in executions since 1976 (when the U.S. Supreme Court approved the practice after a brief moratorium), the wheels are coming off the bandwagon. From a peak of 40 executions in 2000, the Lone Star State put 10 prisoners to death last year and seven so far in 2015. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, the number of new death sentences imposed by Texas courts this year is precisely zero. There, as elsewhere, prosecutors, judges and jurors are concluding that the modern death penalty is a failed experiment.

The shift is more pragmatic than moral, as Americans realize that our balky system of state-sanctioned killing simply isn’t fixable. As a leader of the Georgia Republican Party, attorney David J. Burge, recently put it, “Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program.”
The skeptic in me wonders whether it is, indeed, too early to start performing a post-mortem on the death penalty in America (interestingly, while many of the '16 presidential candidates are calling for sentencing reform, none has of yet embraced Nebraska's decision yesterday). 

But the trend is certainly rapidly accelerating towards limiting, stalling or outright elimination today (no state has introduced the death penalty since 1976). And that, in itself, is a reason for optimism.

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