A Voice From the Past Rings True 86 Years Later

The unicameral Legislature voted last week to abolish the death penalty in Nebraska, with two more votes than necessary to override a promised veto by Governor Pete Ricketts.

Republicans in the legislature say they were persuaded to vote for abolition for reasons of religion, cost and skepticism in the executive branch's ability to carry out the punishment when warranted.

While Nebraska is on the cusp of making history in the 21st Century, these arguments were also made by a Republican statewide officeholder in the 20th.

In 1929, my grandfather, C.A. Sorensen, was the state's Republican attorney general. In that capacity, he sat on the Pardon and Parole Board. In May 1929, the three-person Board reviewed an application by one Henry Sherman to commute his sentence from death to life imprisonment. My grandfather argued that Sherman should be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Attorney General Sorensen's opinion has been echoed throughout the debate in the Unicameral. Like many legislators, he invoked religion. "If the Mosaic law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is the social philosophy of today then this young man's plea for life should be spurned; he should be killed with all the torture that the ancients invented. But is that our social philosophy? Has not humanitarianism based on the teachings of the Nazarene also a place in our thinking? ... Capital punishment seems to me a survival of barbarism."

Sen. Colby Coash, one of the sponsors of the current legislation, has stated that his opposition to the death penalty is based on his values as a Christian conservative.

Sorensen rejected the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent to murder, made this week by Governor Pete Ricketts. "There is no proof whatever ... that capital punishment is more of a deterrent to murder than life imprisonment. The murder rate in the Scandinavian countries where capital punishment has been abolished is lower than in England where the death penalty is in force." Archbishop Lucas of Omaha noted this month that the death penalty neither rehabilitates nor deters.

Finally, like those legislators pointing to the high cost of capital punishment, Sorensen argued that state funds spent on prevention yielded far greater bang for the buck. "Capital punishment is an avoidance and not a solution of the crime problem. Poisonous weeds do not grow in gardens that are tended. ... We do not get far by killing a few mosquitoes and doing nothing about the swamps where they breed." A wide swath of conservative Republican state leaders published a statement earlier this month calling the death penalty fiscally irresponsible: "Taxpayers ultimately bear the burden for this ineffective policy."

"The school house rather than the electric chair is the symbol of the kind of civilization I want to see in America," Sorensen stated in 1929. He lost the argument to save Henry Sherman; the two other members of the Pardon and Parole Board did not believe that his sentence should be commuted, and Sherman was put to death. Sorensen's argument was filed merely as a dissenting opinion.

86 years later, Nebraska is poised to make history. My grandfather would be proud.

Juliet S. Sorensen is a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University. She is the granddaughter of C.A. Sorensen, Attorney General of Nebraska from 1928-1932. This op-ed first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star on May 27, 2015.