Nebraska, Tsarnaev, and the United States’ dwindling use of the death penalty

May 20, 2015

 In a stunning move this morning, Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill to abolish the death penalty in their state. And although the Governor has promised to veto, with 32 votes in favor the legislature stands poised to override the governor and make the bill law. Doing so would make Nebraska the 19th state to repeal the death penalty, the 7th since 2007.

Meanwhile, the nation is still reacting to the news that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death last week for the Boston Marathon bombings.

At first blush, the two news stories may seem at odds – while capital punishment looks to be on the way out in Nebraska, it looks alive and well in one Boston federal courthouse. But appearances can be deceiving, and the nation’s reaction to the Tsarnaev sentence shows a deep conflict, even discomfort, over the death penalty.

His case made that conflict evident even before the trial against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev began: as prosecutors looked for a “death qualified” jury (one in which all jurors are willing to hand down a death sentence), they discovered that Bostonians were not so eager to mete out a capital sentence. Massachusetts abolished the death penalty in 1984, and polls show a majority of Boston residents continue to oppose the death penalty. Boston’s local CBS affiliate reported that the lengthy search for “death qualified” jurors slowed the trial’s pace, and Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi wrote that the process unfairly skewed the jury.

And now that the jury has sentenced Tsarnaev to death, we’ve already begun to learn the story is far from over. Writing yesterday in the Seattle Times, columnist Froma Harrop argued that this sentence keeps the focus on Tsarnaev and the bombings rather than the resiliency of the community that survived the attacks. As his appeals continue, Tsarnaev will dominate headlines for years to come. These reflections on the death penalty’s utterly broken procedure – and the lack of confidence they reveal in the death penalty system – are not new. Indeed the flaws in the U.S. death penalty have been apparent for decades. What is new is the willingness to look past the grief and horror of crimes like the bombings in order to find justice. And whatever else it may be, the death penalty is not justice.

One reason for that growing willingness is epitomized by today’s events in Nebraska: the death penalty is being abandoned across the country. Seven states since 2007 have repealed the death penalty, making 19 total; executions are at their lowest in decades; death sentences are dropping everywhere.

But then, Nebraska’s more than just emblematic. It’s a game-changer.

That’s because Nebraska’s legislature was pushed to repeal the death penalty by an unlikely coalition of self-described conservatives. Senator Colby Coash, the Republican sponsor of the bill, told the New York Times, “Some people see this as a pro-life issue. Other people see it as a good-government issue. But the support that this bill is getting from conservative members is evidence that you can get justice through eliminating the death penalty, and you can get efficient government through eliminating the death penalty.”

As the United States continues to discern its conflicting feelings in the wake of cases like Tsarnaev’s, one thing is clear: the death penalty is on its way out as more Americans learn the system is broken beyond repair.

Death sentences are becoming rarer and rarer – in fact Tsarnaev’s is the only case in which someone accused of terrorism has been sentenced to death in the post-9/11 era. The majority of states – and the vast majority of counties – have abandoned the death penalty. Those who still use it are becoming increasingly isolated.

In the meantime, join me in congratulating Nebraska on a job well done, and a sign of many more to come!