Why conservative Nebraska seems determined to repeal the death penalty

Nebraska, once the picture of reliable Republican conservatism, is expected to repeal the death penalty this week, a move that is part of the growing debate over capital punishment and illustrates how the division between left and right is blurring on some political issues.

State lawmakers last week voted 32-15 to end capital punishment, but Gov. Pete Ricketts signed the veto message on Tuesday.

"This sends the wrong message," the governor said at a televised news conference, urging senators to vote to keep the death penalty. Repealing capital punishment "sends a message to criminals that Nebraska will be soft on crime."

Despite the governor's request, the legislature is expected to consider an override, according to Nebraska Sen. Ernie Chambers.

“We got 32 votes to end the death penalty and if they follow their conscience, we should have no trouble with an override,” Chambers told the Los Angeles Times. He said he will pick a time for the override vote, which will be called this week, but not on Tuesday.

Though the majority of people tell national pollsters that they still support the death penalty, the issue has comes under increasing examination in the wake of several executions where the inmate seemed to suffer.  Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the thorny issues of lethal injections and the proper dosage of drugs that can be used to avoid the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Other criminal justice issues have drawn similar responses from the left and right.

For example, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Rand Paul, one of the leaders in the double-digit field of Republican candidates, have both called for reforms to end the mass incarceration of inmates, principally on drug charges.

Questions about the viability of the death penalty and the changing nature of conservative thought, are part of the reason that Nebraska is poised to become the only red state in recent years to ban executions, said Chambers, who eschews all labels and refers to himself as an independent.

Chambers, who represents parts of Omaha, said he has tried to repeal the death penalty 37 times.  He would not have succeeded in getting the bill passed this year without conservative support.

Fueling the change was last year’s election of 17 new senators among the 49 who sit in the state’s single house legislature. Fourteen Republicans are among the new group of lawmakers and they have shown a willingness to buck old ideas on issues including the death penalty.

“A good many of them are open-minded, less willing to follow prescribed orthodoxy,” Omaha Sen. John McCollister, a Republican and one of the first-year senators, told the Omaha World-Herald.

“There’s a conservative pragmatism running through a lot of us,” said Crete Sen. Laura Ebke, a fellow Republican and freshman. Both senators voted to end the death penalty.

Chambers cites that mood of change behind the current drive to end the death penalty.

“The moon was in seventh house and Jupiter lined up with Mars,” said Chambers paraphrasing from the "Hair" show tune "Aquarius" about the dawning of a new age of consciousness. “I have to be honest that the switch among conservatives on the death penalty comes from a lot of reasons and gave our effort a big push.

“The public has grave misgivings about the number of exonerations of people on death row,” because of new DNA evidence showing that the initial convictions were wrong, Chambers said. “The number of exonerations proves that some people have been wrongly executed.”

However, some still hew to the traditional conservative position. State Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion got so exasperated that he tossed a handful of papers in the air during the legislative debate over the death penalty. He called his colleagues “spineless wimps.”

“I’m livid, absolutely livid,” he said, as the repeal of capital punishment moved forward, according to newspaper reports.

The death penalty is still favored about 2-1 across the U.S., according to Gallup's most recent poll in October.

Nebraska has long had an abolitionist streak, one often thwarted by law-and-order governors. The Great Plains state currently has 11 men on death row and has not executed an inmate since 1997. 

Nebraska lawmakers voted to ban executions in 1979, only to see the governor veto the effort. A temporary moratorium in 1999 was also vetoed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The nonpartisan Legislature also came within a vote of passing a ban in 2007.

Sen. Bob Krist summed up his support in a single defiant, yet polite announcement: “I am Republican enough. I am conservative enough. And I am strong enough to follow through with my life convictions, which is life from conception to natural death. Thank you for listening.”

Not all Christians were in favor of a ban on theological grounds. “I want to read some Bible verses for you that talks about this,” Sen. David Schnoor said. “Exodus 21 talks about an eye for an eye. Numbers 35: ‘Who so killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by mouth of the witnesses.’ That's how we live. That's how our Constitution was formed, based on these beliefs.”

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Lincoln did not reveal his vote until the last minute.

“This is an issue that rips all of us apart,”  Bloomfield said in April. “I go back to my mother's haunting words: The state should not take away a life until they have the ability to give it back. But there is justice that needs to be served.”

He added: “I, at this moment, don't know how I'm going to vote on it. I will ultimately reach that decision when my name is called on the roll call vote.”

Bloomfield was ultimately one of 15 who voted against the bill last week, easily outnumbered by 32 peers.

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