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How Nebraska Repealed the Death Penalty

A deep-red state shows the way, with conservatives in the lead.

On Wednesday, Nebraska senators voted 30-19 to override a gubernatorial veto and end the death penalty. Nebraska’s Senate maintains a uniquely non-partisan structure, but each senator’s party affiliation is well known – and it was Republicans who took the lead in voting for the bill.

The media has covered the developing story with awe and surprise, publishing headlines like “Lawmakers in Nebraska — Nebraska! — Vote to End the Death Penalty” and “The death penalty’s dying breaths, even in Nebraska.”

So how did deep-red Nebraska become a leading indicator of the death penalty’s demise? National trends have been moving away from the death penalty for some time. Executions and death sentences have plummeted as public support for the death penalty has shifted. (A majority of Americans support alternatives to the death penalty such as life without parole when they are offered a choice.) Ten states have either ended the death penalty or officially suspended executions in quick succession since 2007.

Nebraska may be the first red state to join the official list, but it is not the first to try. Republicans have sponsored death penalty repeal bills in red states like Kansas, Kentucky, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Montana’s Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted 50-50 on death penalty repeal earlier this year. Meanwhile, Republican support for the death penalty dropped a full five percentage points last year – a bigger drop than the previous 19 years combined.

Nebraska’s trends have mirrored this national shift. In 2007, a bill to repeal the death penalty came within just one vote of passage. Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a grassroots organization in Lincoln, connected with a few conservatives who opposed the death penalty. Soon after, a Republican took over as the group’s executive director. With an evangelical Christian and former GOP staffer at the helm, the group initiated a dialog with fellow conservatives across the state, seeking counsel from conservative allies in other states and national abolitionist organizations like mine, Equal Justice USA. By 2013, a repeal bill had gained enough support to pass, but not enough to end a filibuster or override a veto. This year, the grassroots anti-death penalty organization expanded again, bringing on a lifelong conservative Nebraskan who was an active member of the Republican Party.

Conservative outreach in Nebraska expanded alongside a growing cadre of national conservative voices speaking out against the death penalty: Jay Sekulow, Richard Viguerie, Ramesh Ponnuru, Ron Paul, Oliver North, Drew Johnson, and others. Just last week George Will wrote that the death penalty was dying, and conservative commentator S.E. Cupp said on national television that she believed views of conservatives were changing. Their reasons include mistrust of government, fiscal responsibility (pursuing a death penalty case over years or decades of appeals is expensive) and a religious consistency about the sanctity of life.

At the core of this growing momentum is the decision by philosophically pro-death- penalty lawmakers and citizens to give up on a policy they believe had failed. These failures were acknowledged by the broad coalition of Nebraskans directly affected by the issue – families of murder victims, law enforcement, and the wrongfully convicted – who spoke out for repeal over the course of this year’s legislative session. Over two dozen victims’ families joined the effort to say that the death penalty did not heal their pain, and in fact, exacerbated it by dragging them through a lengthy, traumatizing process that rarely ends in the promised result. A retired Lincoln Police Captain said the death penalty did not contribute to public safety. A Nebraska woman described how the threat of the death penalty motivated her to plead guilty to murder to save her own life. She spent years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit, along with five others, until the truth came out and they were set free.

The press has emphasized the high costs of the death penalty or the state’s inability to carry out an execution as the driving reasons that conservatives adopted the banner of death penalty repeal. The reality is more complex. Many of the lawmakers who voted “yes” had learned from these individuals on the frontlines of the death penalty that it failed the very people it was purportedly there to help – victims’ families, law enforcement, the innocent people who were wrongfully ensnared in its legal process. If the death penalty was effective -- as a deterrent, as a source of solace to victims -- some might have justified its high costs or fought harder to restart executions. But it was the grand totality of its failures that caused it to crumble.

Ultimately, all of these reasons have driven grassroots conservative movements for repeal inside and outside Nebraska. Though independent, they come together under a national network called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, launched by Equal Justice USA in 2013 when a group of Montana conservatives working under the same name decided to make their group national.

These conservative groups are part of the next chapter of death penalty repeal – one that is decidedly bipartisan. It’s a chapter that death penalty repeal advocates on the left and right have been writing for some time.

Shari Silberstein is Executive Director of Equal Justice USA, a national organization working to reform the criminal justice system.