Bipartisan effort ends death penalty in Nebraska

by Elizabeth A. Elliott

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Nebraska has become the 19th state to abolish the death penalty and the first state in two years to pass such legislation.

Legislators in this conservative state, whose unicameral assembly, governor's office and congressional delegation is controlled by Republicans, found support in a coalition of conservative and progressive groups that included the state's Catholic bishops and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bill passed May 20 with a 32-15 vote. On Tuesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed it, but on Wednesday, after debating two and a half hours, legislators overrode the veto with a 30-19 vote.

Passage of the new law "is reflective of a general movement in public opinion against use of the death penalty, particularly among people with more conservative political policy views," said Greg Schleppenbach, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's three dioceses.

Ten people were on Nebraska's death row at the time of the repeal, though the state hadn't executed a person since 1997. (Death row prisoner Michael Ryan died in custody Sunday; he was convicted of the 1985 cult killings of two people, including a 5-year-old boy.)

Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an organization founded in 1981, sponsored a news conference May 13 where several religious leaders -- Omaha Archbishop George Lucas among them -- discussed their views on the death penalty.

Effie Caldarola, part-time field organizer with Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told NCR that the organization benefited from the well-organized, hierarchical nature of the Catholic church. She said there has been support for years, from the Catholic Conference, religious sisters, and retired Bishop William Dendinger of Grand Island, but she noted a difference this year.

"I think this year, the church, from the bishops on down, saw this as something that could actually happen and that they could help make happen. A bishop's enthusiasm can have a real trickle-down effect on clergy and in the pews," Caldarola said. "Archbishop George Lucas was a headliner for a press conference of religious leaders. That carried weight here."

"Pope Francis' recent words gave us a boost, and [death penalty activist St. Joseph] Sr. Helen Prejean's visits and phone calls invigorated our cause," Caldarola said.

"When I think of a word to describe how the local Catholic church in Nebraska stepped up in the repeal effort this year, that word would be 'invaluable' and that includes hundreds, probably thousands, of individual Catholics," she said. "It gives me hope, as a Catholic, that the church, with the great organization it has, can really have tremendous impact on social justice issues if we set our minds to it."

Schleppenbach said his organization did several things to move along the legislation. "We directly lobbied senators, issued action alerts, coordinated a joint statement on the death penalty by the bishops of Nebraska, [and] coordinated the involvement of Archbishop George Lucas (on behalf of NCC) in a religious leaders news conference in support of LB 268."

In a joint statement issued March 17, Nebraska's Catholic bishops argued for abolition from a number of perspectives:

  • The teachings of the Catholic church. "Our position is rooted in the teachings of our faith. We ask those who disagree with us to reflect prayerfully on the words of Jesus Christ himself: 'love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.' "
  • Concern for wrongful convictions. "Since 1973, 143 individuals in the U.S. have been released from death row as a result of evidence that demonstrated they were wrongly convicted. As technology improves, this may become more commonplace."
  • The disproportionate numbers of racial minorities sentenced to death. "We are deeply troubled by a justice system in which the innocent might be executed, and in which race, education, and economics might play a factor in a death sentence."

The bishops also called for increased efforts to rehabilitate criminals. Recognizing "that some criminals will never be fit for reintegration into society," the bishops added that they "support the use of just sentences that keep Nebraskans safe."

Schleppenbach told NCR that the possibility innocent people are on death row played a role in this debate. "I heard directly from one senator that this information did have an impact on his position in favor of the bill," he said.

Matt Maly is the conservative coordinator for Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He said he tries to "initiate dialogues and remind people on the right side of the spectrum that capital punishment is a government program and, as such, is bound to be expensive, ineffective and prone to errors."

As a lifelong conservative, Maly said he has always had a healthy skepticism of the government.

"While many of my fellow Republicans disagree on this issue," he said, "it's great to help them look at it in a new way."

Maly admits it is difficult to promote what was once a liberal cause in a conservative state, but he sees a nationwide trend of conservatives supporting the repeal of the death penalty.

"Conservatives love finding wasteful government programs and getting rid of them. The death penalty is extremely expensive, it puts innocent lives at risk, it's hard on victims' families, and it gives government another unnecessary power," he said. "It's just not compatible with limited government, and Nebraska conservatives are not only recognizing that but doing something about it."

According to Heather Beaudoin, a national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, "Nebraska conservative Christian politicians are not operating in a vacuum." Writing for Religion News Service, Beaudoin reported that conservative Christian politicians in Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire and South Dakota sponsored bills to repeal capital punishment.

"In South Dakota, a Republican state representative who is an evangelical pastor changed his mind on the death penalty and sponsored the bill to repeal it," Beaudoin wrote.

Conservatives in Tennessee, North Carolina and Montana have formed groups to question the death penalty, according to Beaudoin.

According to a recent poll, roughly half of voters in Nebraska support replacing the death penalty with an alternative such as life in prison. That aligns with polling of Americans nationwide. For a growing number of Christians, opposition to the death penalty remains fundamentally grounded to one issue -- their commitment to promoting a culture of life, Beaudoin wrote. 

"We must all be careful to temper our natural outrage against violent crime with a recognition of the dignity of all people, even the guilty," Nebraska's Catholic bishops said in their March 17 statement.

[Elizabeth A. Elliott is a freelance writer based in Omaha.]

A version of this story appeared in the June 5-18, 2015 print issue under the headline: Bipartisan effort ends death penalty in Nebraska.

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