LINCOLN, Neb. (MEDIA GENERAL) – Opponents of the death penalty continue to celebrate one day after Nebraska repealed its state law and abolished capital punishment.
The Nebraska Legislature, after two tense hours of passionate speeches from lawmakers on both sides of the argument Wednesday, voted 30-to-19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto, banning the death penalty in the state.
Wednesday’s vote ends a long battle between the Legislature and Ricketts, who have gone back and forth on the issue for months. Ricketts, a firm proponent of capital punishment, denounced the vote and insinuated several members of the Legislature, including many Republicans who voted for the repeal, had lost touch with the state’s conservative majority.
“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” Ricketts 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 issue.”
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said public opinion has trended largely toward abolishing the death penalty, citing Pew Research studies that show public support for the death penalty has dropped from 80 percent in the 1980s to 56 percent today.
“When you ask Americans the policy question, not just ‘do you support the death penalty in the abstract’ but the policy question of ‘What’s the appropriate punishment for murder, the death penalty or life without possibility of parole?’ a majority of Americans now say life without possibility of parole is the appropriate punishment,” Dunham said.
Dunham disagrees with Gov. Ricketts’ assertion that all conservative Republicans support the death penalty. He notes several lawmakers are changing their minds on capital punishment because they are focusing on the cost and efficiency of implementing the death penalty.
“What we’ve seen in the Nebraska debate, as one with a conservative Legislature, is a shift in focus from the dogmatic to the pragmatic,” Dunham said. “Conservatives are now looking at the death penalty as policy to see whether it works; not as an ideological issue or whether it can be supported in the abstract. When it’s looked at pragmatically, as opposed to policy, they are agreeing with other opponents of the death penalty that the system is broken and it doesn’t work. It is costly and it is ineffective.”
Nebraska is the first predominantly Republican state to abolish the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973. The Cornhusker State also is the seventh state in the past 10 years and 19th state overall to repeal the death penalty. New York (2007), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012) and Maryland (2013) are the most recent states to abolish capital punishment.
Even though capital punishment still is legal in 31 states, execution rates have slowed greatly since new death penalty statutes were instituted for a majority of states across the U.S. in the 1970s. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, seven states: Nebraska, New Hampshire, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania have not executed anyone in more than a decade. Arkansas could join that list soon – its last execution was in November 2005. Five other states – Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, South Dakota and Washington – have averaged less than one execution per decade over the past 50 years.