The Pro-Death Movement in Nebraska

On May 27, the Nebraska legislature, overturning a gubernatorial veto, repealed the state's death penalty. For opponents of state execution, there was a brief moment of rejoicing. But many Nebraskans were instantly nostalgic for the good old days of killing bad people. The movement to restore the death penalty is already underway.

For four decades, the seemingly quixotic quest to eliminate Nebraska's death penalty has been led by state senator Ernie Chambers, Nebraska's "Defender of the Downtrodden," who never shies from controversy. But 35 of the 49 senators in Nebraska's unicameral legislature are Republicans. How did Chambers' bill manage to pass, even in the face of a strong filibuster, and how did it ultimately get the 30 votes needed to override the governor's veto?

Rest assured it's not that Nebraska Republicans are secretly liberal. The Nebraska legislature, however, is officially nonpartisan, and many of its members pride themselves on their independence. In the end, about half of the Republicans convinced each other that there are at least three strong conservative reasons to oppose the death penalty: distrust of government, control of government spending, and pro-life commitment.

First, if you don't trust the government to administer a system of health care, how can you trust it to administer a system of killing? False murder convictions are common. Right here in Nebraska, we have the Beatrice Six, who were convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of an elderly woman after five of them confessed in deals that spared them the death penalty. In 2009 all six were completely exonerated after DNA evidence identified the real perpetrator, who by then was dead.

Second, if you're trying to save money, you might think killing people would be cheaper than keeping them in jail. But given the required due process, including multiple appeals, it ends up being more expensive. And cutting back on due process to increase the efficiency of execution means even more innocent people will stand falsely convicted of murder.

Finally, if you're not just anti-abortion but actually pro-life, you should support life, not death. This is why Nebraska's Catholic bishops -- also not known for their liberalism -- supported repeal of the death penalty. If you support life so strongly that you think the government should restrict women's reproductive choices in order to protect it, how can you support government-administered death?

But not everyone is convinced. Still leading the charge for death is Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts. As the legislature considered repeal of the death penalty, Ricketts announced that Nebraska had just purchased two of the drugs needed for its current execution protocol from a broker in India. With respect to one of those drugs, sodium thiopental, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration responded,

With very limited exceptions, which do not apply here, it is unlawful to import this drug, and the FDA would refuse its admission into the United States.

Vetoing the repeal, Ricketts maintained that it flouted the will of "the overwhelming majority of Nebraskans." When his veto was overridden, despite his best lobbying efforts, he responded, "My words cannot express how appalled I am." As for the ten prisoners currently on death row, he insists, "Our plan is to proceed with the executions."

Government execution is not just a good idea, in the view of Governor Ricketts; it is a moral imperative. Nebraska will do whatever it can to keep killing, even after its death penalty has been abolished, and will even engage in international drug trafficking to get what it needs to administer its lethal injections. In a story on Nebraska's repeal of the death penalty, John Oliver called Governor Ricketts a "dollar-store Lex Luthor."

Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of repeal, a new group has formed: Nebraskans For the Death Penalty. It plans to collect enough signatures to force a November 2016 referendum that, if successful, would restore the death penalty. Many Nebraskans agree with the governor that government has the wisdom to decide who should be put to death and should have the power to make and implement those decisions.

So I guess it's time to stop celebrating the repeal of the death penalty. Now I'm watching with a combination of fascination and horror as a new pro-death movement comes to life. Just call it Nebraskans for Death.