Who would have guessed that Nebraska, that conservative bastion in the heartland, might be the state to lead the way toward a day when the death penalty would become a thing of the past?
Nebraska has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968. Democrat Bob Kerrey did serve as governor and as a U.S. senator from Nebraska, but he was the exception and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.
The state seems an unlikely starting point for a national movement that would be declared by most as a liberal cause. That is, the abolition of the death penalty.
But that’s exactly what happened last week when the Nebraska legislature narrowly overrode the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts and abolished the death penalty.
The action couldn’t have been achieved by liberal Democrats alone. Conservative Republicans were on board with abolition simply because of their skepticism about the death penalty.
And that skepticism everywhere is grounded both in moral belief and in practical science.
Plenty of doubts
There have been a number of cases, including in North Carolina, in which DNA evidence has demonstrated the innocence of those convicted of serious crimes, including murder. When that happens, it casts doubts on the fairness of the justice system and certainly proves its vulnerability.
When a person is wrongly convicted of a minor offense and loses time and perhaps a fine, it’s still a serious matter. But when the death penalty is in play, a defendant faces the one punishment that cannot be corrected or for which he or she can somehow be compensated if a conviction is found to be wrong.
Beyond the scientific developments that have shown innocent people really do go to prison, there is the moral question. Should the state serve as executioner on behalf of the citizenry? Because make no mistake, that’s what happens. The state doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and when someone is executed, it is the people, all the people in effect, who are injecting that poison-filled needle. So what about the ones, and there are many, who don’t believe in the death penalty at all? Their strenuous objections, grounded perhaps in their religious beliefs, are in effect ignored.
Smacks of revenge
The death penalty also smacks of revenge punishment, something to give satisfaction to the family and friends of a murder victim. That’s not what the court system is about. It is about justice, not revenge.
And to argue, as many politicians have over many decades, that the death penalty is important because it is a deterrent to crime is simply disingenuous. It’s political convenience, because there’s little evidence to show a connection between the establishment of the death penalty and a decrease in crime. States without the death penalty have lower murder rates than those with it.
Sadly, North Carolina’s Republicans continue to lead the state away from enlightened thought on the issue. Legislators now are moving to restart stalled executions in the state by eliminating the requirement that a doctor be present.
North Carolina’s People of Faith Against the Death Penalty offered a good summation here: “It is no longer conservative to support the death penalty – it’s just outdated. The legislators in Nebraska voted their consciences. They voted their values. They value life and creation and justice for all and recognize that the death penalty is, in fact, contrary to these values.”
It has been more than 40 years since a state acted to abolish the death penalty. Let us hope Nebraska’s action will be followed by other states sooner than that.