Nebraska State Senator Colby Coash (R-Lincoln), a conservative Republican (although Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is nominally non-partisan), tells an interesting story about his evolution on the death penalty:
Many years ago, just before an execution in Nebraska and before he got involved in politics, he went to the prison to see what was happening outside before the criminal was put to death inside. While there were some anti-death penalty protesters, most of the scene resembled a big tailgate party. Coash, then in favor of the death penalty, partied right along with his fellow Cornhuskers. When he got home that evening, the experience didn’t sit right with him and he realized that he couldn’t celebrate the death of a person, particularly at the hand of government, even while knowing that that person probably deserved to die. Coash’s view on the death penalty was changed for good.
And so on Wednesday afternoon, Senator Coash, along with 29 other members of the Unicameral — mostly Republicans — joined the body’s handful of Democrats to cobble together the 30 votes necessary to override the veto of Republican Governor Pete Ricketts and repeal the death penalty in the state of Nebraska.
The vote on the original bill had 32 senators voting to end the death penalty. The governor did all he could to flip three votes and keep the law as it stood but he could only change two minds despite arguing that repeal “sends the message to criminals that Nebraska will be soft on crime.”
Coash doesn’t buy the argument, noting that Nebraska hasn’t executed a criminal in nearly 20 years. As if to emphasize the point, a murderer who was on death row for 30 years while his appeals ran their interminable course died of cancer on Sunday.
Senator Ernie Chambers (Omaha), the longest-serving legislator in the chamber (although his service was interrupted by a four-year break due to term limits) and a man not without his own recent controversy, had failed in 38 prior attempts over 40 years to end the death penalty.
Yesterday all that changed, although another senator announced plans to explore “using the petition process to add the death penalty to the Constitution of the State of Nebraska.”
Maybe it’s the age of Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat — it’s hard to think of another explanation — that has catalyzed the stunningly rapid change in public opinion on gay marriage and is working quickly on what Americans think of other issues such as marijuana legalization and immigration reform.
So in 2015, when a state as “red” as Nebraska, on the strength of conservative Republicans overriding a Republican governor, ends the death penalty, a modest wave through the remaining 31 death penalty states — including many conservative states — is easy to foresee.
In February, the Montana state House came one vote from passing a bill to repeal that state’s death penalty. Also with Republican support, Kansas continues its conversation about doing the same, not having executed anyone in that state for fifty years.
Offering intellectual ammunition to Republican opponents of the death penalty is none other than George Will, who lays out “the conservative case against capital punishment” including:
The endless appeals also mean that families of victims never get the “closure” that one would hope to be one of the key benefits of the death penalty. As Bill and Denise Richard, parents of 8-year old Martin who was one of the three people killed in the Boston bombing (their 7-year old daughter was maimed), pleaded, “the continued pursuit of that [death penalty] punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.… The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.” I will never understand the true depths of their sorrow; their opinion matters far more than most.
Another important conservative critique of the death penalty, one that Kansas State Sen. Carolyn McGinn has been offering for years, is that every aspect of death penalty punishments, from the cost of the trial (at which the defendant often has a public defender as well as the public prosecutor) to the cost of housing someone on death row, is exceedingly expensive. Ironically, the only cheap part is the actual “cocktail” of drugs used in most states that have the death penalty today. But by the time the lethal injection is given, the state has likely spent double or triple — and sometimes much more — what it would have cost to convict the murderer and house him in prison for the rest of his natural life.
As one FoxNews.com story put it, the “death penalty is a killer for state budgets,” adding that “every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes.” While those who are producing the studies of the cost to taxpayers of death penalty cases may have a bias against capital punishment, the numbers are staggering: “Since 1978, the cost to taxpayers for the five executions [Maryland] carried out was $37.2 million dollars — each.” One study argues that California “could immediately save $1 billion by eliminating the death penalty and imposing sentences of life without parole.”
How does a fiscal conservative — including one who believes that people who commit certain crimes deserve to die — look at all of these factors and conclude that the “justice” provided by death sentences is so much more “just” than life in prison as to warrant many millions — tens of millions — of dollars in costs to innocent taxpayers?
I now believe that if a murderer rots in jail for the rest of his life rather than costing us enormous sums to rot in jail for a few years less before being dispatched, that’s close enough to justice for me.
Going back to and elaborating on George Will’s point about infallibility: If an omniscient being came to you from the not-too-distant future and told you that over the next 20 years, the American justice system will put to death one hundred convicted murderers but that one of them is actually innocent, would you still support having government execute people? What about one out of a thousand? Ten thousand? For me, the answer is an obvious and resounding “No!”
I have long supported the death penalty and I firmly believe that approximately all of those who are sentenced to death deserve to die. But the key word in that sentence is “approximately” and not “deserve.” Many of these questions, not least the cost question, weigh heavily on me.
And so, while I may be quietly happy, or at least satisfied, when the Boston bomber gets what he has heinously earned, there are simply too many cases of innocent (or possibly innocent) people being sentenced to death and at far too great a cost to taxpayers for me to remain in support of the death penalty as public policy (with the possible exception of treason during war time).
Judging from what happened in Nebraska on Wednesday, I can’t possibly be alone.
In this ultra-fast-opinion-sharing age, I expect that the courageous vote by so many Republicans to end that state’s death penalty will, in the not too distant future, be seen as the earthquake that led to aftershocks of repeal in many states — many conservative states — across the land. Senators Colby Coash and Ernie Chambers and 28 of their colleagues in Nebraska’s Unicameral will have a story to proudly tell their children and grandchildren about how they helped changed our nation, one state at a time.
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