Nebraska has become the first conservative US state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, with policymakers defying their Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, a supporter of capital punishment who had lobbied against banning it.
After more than two hours of emotional speeches at the Capitol on Wednesday, the legislature, by a 30-19 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.
The vote capped a months-long battle that pitted most representatives in the unicameral legislature against the governor, many law enforcement officials and some family members of murder victims whose killers are on death row.
The legislature approved the repeal bill three times this year, each time by a veto-proof majority, before sending it to Mr Ricketts’ desk. Adding to the drama, two senators who had previously voted for repeal switched to support the governor at the last minute.
Mr Ricketts, who fought against the repeal bill by appearing repeatedly in television interviews and urging Nebraskans to pressure their senators to oppose it, immediately denounced the vote. “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” he said in a statement. “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.”
In a debate that was by turns somber, fiery and soul-searching, with sprinklings of quotes from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and the Book of Genesis, senators stood to make last-minute pitches to try to persuade the undecided. Some said capital punishment should be retained as a tool to punish the most heinous crimes. Others said the death penalty, which has not been used in Nebraska since 1997, was irretrievably broken.
“Today we are doing something that transcends me, that transcends this Legislature, that transcends this state,” said Senator Ernie Chambers, the independent from Omaha who sponsored the bill. “We are talking about human dignity.”
A few senators argued Nebraskans were still broadly in favour of capital punishment, even if many Republicans in the legislature had turned away from it. Others said they were deeply conflicted about their vote to retain the death penalty. “Today I will sustain the governor’s veto because I campaigned on it,” said Senator Tyson Larson, two hours into the debate. “This might be the last time I give the state the right to take a life because I don’t think that they necessarily should.”
Opponents of the death penalty were able to build a coalition that spanned the ideological spectrum by winning the support of Republican legislators who said they believed the death penalty was inefficient, expensive and out of place with their party’s values, as well as from politicians who cited religious or moral reasons for their supporting the repeal. Nebraska now joins 18 other states and Washington, DC, in banning the death penalty.
The result was welcomed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. Danielle Conrad, executive director, welcomed the result as “a remarkable and historic victory”.
“This is a meaningful victory for all Nebraskans. 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,” she said.
The vote comes as liberals and conservatives have been finding common ground on criminal justice issues in Washington and around the country. In other states, Democrats and Republicans driven by different motivations have formed alliances to limit revenues that towns can collect from traffic fines; cracked down on civil asset forfeiture, a practice that disproportionately affects the poor; and eased mandatory prison sentences.
On the presidential trail, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have all called for easing mandatory minimum sentences, and some Republican candidates have embraced Democratic ideas on issues including bail and drug treatment.
Though it formally considers itself nonpartisan, the Nebraska legislature is dominated by Republicans. The vote Wednesday came a day after Mr Ricketts signed a veto of the death penalty repeal bill in front of reporters assembled at the Capitol and talked about a gruesome bank robbery in the city of Norfolk in 2002, in which five people were shot to death, as a compelling reason that Nebraska should hold on to capital punishment.
Two family members of a woman who was shot during the robbery stood at the governor’s side.
Some Nebraskans said in interviews this week they agreed with the governor. “I’m sure small-town, rural Nebraska communities are furious about the repeal,” said Chris Spargen, a project specialist in his mid-20s, as he rode his bike down a main thoroughfare in Ashland, 30 miles outside Omaha. “I guess I’m technically falling under that as well.”
In downtown Ceresco, about 18 miles north of Lincoln, Wayne Ambrosias, owner of the Sweet Pea Market, said he did not want his tax dollars used to pay for murderers to stay in prison for their entire lives. And he echoed the governor’s statement that the politicians who supported the death penalty repeal were out of touch with a widely conservative public.
“I don’t think the politicians are in line with the everyday people,” Ambrosias said Wednesday just before the vote. “I think it’s more of a political move. I don’t think the people are telling them that’s what they want.” But others said they saw the issue differently, rejecting the argument that the death penalty was necessary to deter crime. “A lot of times murder is a crime of passion,” said Don Johnson, a retired commercial fisherman from Alaska now living in Ceresco. “I don’t think they think they think about the death penalty when they kill somebody or somebody gets killed. I don’t think it’s a preventative measure at all.”
Mr Johnson, who considers himself an evangelical Protestant, said he sees the issue less as a religious belief than a strictly personal one. Other members of his church are in favour of the death penalty, he said, though he admits he cannot quite reconcile the punishment with Christianity.
“If you really follow Jesus’ teachings,” he said, “thou shall not kill, you know.” Catholic bishops in Nebraska issued a statement Tuesday criticising Mr Ricketts’ 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. The bill replaces capital punishment with life imprisonment.
Since 2007, six states have abolished the death penalty: Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey. No conservative state had done so since North Dakota in 1973.
Across the country, efforts to execute criminals on death row have stalled in the face of growing backlash against the death penalty and logistical difficulties with lethal injections. Many states have had difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs, as European manufacturers, citing moral and ethical objections, have refused to sell them to prisons in the United States.
Texas, which executes more inmates than any other state, has only enough drugs to carry out one more lethal injection.
Searching for alternatives in the face of drug shortages, some states have taken other measures.
In March, Utah’s governor signed a law allowing firing squads to be used for executions, and Arkansas, Wyoming and Idaho have considered replacing lethal injection with firing squads. In Tennessee, which has been unable to obtain lethal injection drugs, lawmakers last year reinstated the use of the electric chair. Inmates quickly challenged the constitutionality of the electric chair, and a trial in the Tennessee Supreme Court over its use will begin in July.