VICTORY: Nebraska Becomes the 19th US State to Abolish the Death Penalty!

May 27, 2015

By Christy Hargesheimer, Nebraska resident and Nebraska State Death Penalty Action Coordinator for Amnesty International USA

Wow, who would have thought it possible? Red-state Nebraska (with a few purple splotches) actually has repealed the death penalty by voting to override the Governor’s veto! And who were the people responsible for finally pushing this through? A strong coalition of abolitionists, plus some unlikely suspects, that’s who.

First, a little bit of history: Nebraska was the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty in the modern era, in 1979, but the bill failed to survive the governor’s veto. Subsequently, we saw three executions in the 1990’s, the last one being in 1997.

In 1999 a legislative moratorium bill passed, but was vetoed. In its place, a study was authorized, to be conducted by David C. Baldus of Iowa. The study concluded that the death penalty was arbitrarily applied, depending more on geography, class, race, and the discretion of prosecutors than on fairness.

In 2008, the State Supreme Court ruled that the use of the electric chair was deemed ”cruel and unusual punishment” because at that time Nebraska was the only place on earth that had electrocution as our sole method of execution. Lethal injection replaced the electric chair as the means of execution, but since legal procurement of drugs has eluded the state, the death penalty has essentially been put on hold.

Finally, in 2013, we had enough votes for abolition, but not enough to overcome a filibuster.

But this year, after decades of struggle, we had the votes to halt a filibuster, and the bill sponsored by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has fought for abolition for some 40 years, finally saw its way to final passage.

The suspense was great; would we be able to override the Governor’s promised veto, or would that prove to be an unsurmountable barrier as in 1979? Today, we have our answer. Let the celebration begin!

So, getting back to my crediting “unusual suspects”… Just who has helped bring us to this historic moment? Many victims’ family members have spoken out about the tremendous negative impact the continuous attention presented by the media has had on their lives. Many religious voices (including the Pope and the Dalai Lama) have supported repeal. Law officers, and even some prosecutors, a former Nebraska judge, and former wardens from other states have said that it’s time to move on. But in Nebraska, it’s really the conservative legislators who have turned the corner and have begun to present arguments, both moral and economic, that signal an end to a failed enterprise.

But clearly, this couldn’t have happened without the hard work of groups dedicated to ending state barbarism. Amnesty International USA has been there for us, with phone banks and email alerts asking Nebraska’s Amnesty International members to contact their legislators.

Nebraska also benefits from a strong coalition of people working together;  Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NADP), Equal Justice USA (EJUSA), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and many others have worked diligently to try to educate policy makers and constituents. The media has had many editorials in the major statewide newspapers calling for abolition.

So thank you all for your support, phone calls, and emails. Now Nebraska has joined the ranks of states to abandon this broken and unfixable punishment – the 19th state without the death penalty, and the 7th state to abolish in the only the last 8 years.

The tidal wave of abolition is continuing to sweep over the United States, and soon the death penalty will be relegated to the history books where it belongs. Who’s next?