Matthew T. Mangino
May 22, 2015
While a majority of our nation’s 50 states still have the death penalty on their books, that number has begun to shift in recent years. Prior to 2007, 12 states had outlawed executions; between 2007 and 2013, six states banned the procedure.
Now, Nebraska is on the verge of outlawing executions. But what is happening in Nebraska is different.
Maryland was the last state to end capital punishment, in 2013. That wasn’t unexpected. Maryland’s then-Gov. Martin O’Malley worked hard to get the death penalty off the books in his state.
Three other left-leaning states have abolished the death penalty in recent years — New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011 and Connecticut in 2012.
Nebraska is not like any of those states. Nebraska is a red state, a conservative state with a Republican governor.
Thirty-two states and the federal government allow capital punishment. Nebraska may soon make it 31. Lawmakers in Nebraska agreed this week to abolish the death penalty. Nebraska would be the first conservative state in more than 40 years to ban capital punishment, reported The Associated Press.
Nebraska’s vote marks a shift in the national debate because it was bolstered by conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons, argue that it is a waste of taxpayer dollars and question whether the government can be trusted to efficiently administer the ultimate punishment.
Conservative lawmakers who voted for repeal also suggested that the penalty is pointless because it is so rarely carried out.
This stands in stark contrast to traditional law-and-order conservatives who have long stood among the strongest supporters of capital punishment.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican supporter of Nebraska’s capital punishment law, has vowed to veto the measure. However, the vote margin in the unicameral Legislature is more than enough to override the veto.
“It’s looking like it could be a very dark day for public safety,” Ricketts told the Omaha World-Journal. “The Nebraska Legislature is completely out of touch with the overwhelming number of people I talk to.”
On the other side of the issue, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, an independent and opponent of the death penalty, told The Associated Press, “Nebraska has a chance to step into history — the right side of history — to take a step that will be beneficial toward the advancement of a civilized society,”
Nebraska hasn’t executed a prisoner since 1997, when the electric chair was the preferred method of execution. The state has never imposed the punishment under the lethal injection process now required by state law. Some lawmakers have argued that constant legal challenges will prevent the state from carrying out executions anytime soon.
The legislation would not apply retroactively to the 11 men on Nebraska’s death row. However, it would leave the state with no way to carry out their executions.
The state’s last execution was carried out during an era when Democrat President Bill Clinton was using the federal death penalty to secure his standing with the tough-on-crime constituency.
It’s a different time. As Hillary Rodham Clinton pursues her presidential bid, three of her Democratic rivals — former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, Maryland’s former Gov. O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — are death-penalty opponents.
As Bruce Shapiro recently wrote in The Nation, “It should be clear by now that the federal death penalty, far from reflecting social consensus or meaningful deterrence, is entirely political in nature.” He suggested that the federal death penalty was “designed to sell the capital punishment back to states that clearly rejected it,” and the number of rejections continues to grow.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.