Nebraska citizens to vote on death penalty: Repeal should stay in place

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Phil Brown

Last year, when the Nebraska State Legislature repealed the use of the death penalty, overriding Governor Ricketts’ veto and achieving bipartisan support, I was ecstatic. It seemed like such a progressive measure: conservatives uniting with liberals and citing a mosaic of religious, economic and social reasons, putting a penalty that did not work for Nebraska or Nebraskans in the past.

But something troubling happened after the veto was overridden, the repeal became official and news outlets around the country hailed the unicameral’s bipartisan achievement. Governor Rick-etts, with a few senators, began to agitate against the measure. I was troubled by how much of Ricketts’ personal fortune he began funneling into a referendum effort, paying political strategists who knew which areas to avoid in order to get their signatures, paying petition gatherers who would spin the referendum as a matter of voter rights, not a matter of life and death.

His organization, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, is grotesque. I was horrified that an organization that dedicated itself to the pursuit of death could be taken seriously and indeed that a sitting governor would conduct himself in such a way as Ricketts, pouring his mon-ey and his family’s money into this death race. What was once a shining moment for Nebraska, as one of the first conservative states to repeal the death penalty, became another moment ruined by Ricketts, as national news outlets began to notice the corruption and Ricketts’ frantic attempts to kill.

The petition drive was successful, halting the progress of the repeal measure, but Ricketts ran into nagging troubles on his desperate quest to execute the ten men in his prisons. Nebraska was embarrassed again and again as his fumbling to procure illegal drugs, his failure to smuggle them into the country and his failed requests for a refund to his drug dealer, were revealed to a laughing national eye.

Finally, in November, we will vote to put this all behind us, one way or the other.

It should go without saying that this is a bipartisan issue. One of the most troubling falsehoods the death-penalty backers propagate is that the initial repeal was the result of a liberal legislature that was out of touch with its citizens. But in reality, the movement would not have passed without a very strong conservative coalition, voting from their hearts and minds.

As someone who grew up in a deeply religious community, I know those who would cringe at being called a liberal, but fully support the legislature in its repeal. These are conservative Christians who take Bible verses like “love your enemies” and “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone,” seriously. The idea that the unicameral acted in spite of con-servatives is nothing but spin.

Whether conservative or liberal, there are many reasons to oppose the death penalty. One of the biggest reasons is that the penalty, as it is administered by the state, is unfair.

Around seven out of ten death penalty cases within the last few decades have been found to be erroneous, and wealth and race show disparate statistical influence on whether the penalty is administered at all. It’s also expensive, even if one doesn’t factor in the tens of thousands Ricketts spent pursuing illicit drugs in India. Creighton University economist Dr. Ernest Goss found that the death penalty costs $14.6 million per year over the cost of life without parole. In addition, research shows that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent of further crime.

The death penalty is an unfair, expensive and ineffective treatment, based on research from multiple sources across and beyond party lines. Its repeal showcased the best of Nebraska politics: the ability to work across the aisles (so to speak) and unite on an important issue regardless of political ideology. The ensuing referendum revealed the worst: the corruption and the manipulation of Nebraskan voters. In November, the state will have a chance to set the record straight once and for all. Conservatives and liberals must stand together to make our state the best it can be.


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