In Nebraska vote, sign of broader conservative backlash to death penalty

The Nebraska Legislature abolished the death penalty by overriding the governor's veto. The vote points to an emerging trend among Republicans nationwide.

Nati Harnik/AP
Nebraska lawmakers, including Sens. Ernie Chambers, (c.) and Beau McCoy (center rear) follow the vote to abolish the death penalty on Wednesday. Senators in the one-house Legislature voted 30 to 19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican who supports the death penalty. The vote makes Nebraska the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the punishment since North Dakota in 1973.

Conservative principles are “very close to my heart,” says Marc Hyden, a Republican activist and former National Rifle Association field worker. And that’s why he says he now “eats, sleeps, and breathes” his current job: to help abolish the death penalty.

Mr. Hyden recognizes that conservative firebrands like himself are not usually at the vanguard of efforts to end capital punishment. But he's gone so far as to spearhead the national network Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty in New York. And when Nebraska became the first Republican state in more than 40 years to abolish state executions on Wednesday, those on the political right led the charge.

Indeed, though 3 out of 4 Republicans still favor executing convicted murderers, a Gallup poll found last year, the conservative case against capital punishment has been gaining momentum for years. And new grass-roots political efforts helped turn the tide in Nebraska, where the state legislature overrode Republican Gov. Pete Rickett’s veto of a bill that banned the practice. 

“This is a watershed moment,” says Heather Beaudoin, a national organizer with Equal Justice USA, which sponsors the Conservatives Concerned network. “There were always those of us who were concerned about the death penalty, but we didn’t have the space to talk about this issue on our own terms, or explain why we are concerned.”

There have been a number of conservative heavyweights over the past few years to weigh in against the death penalty, including Richard Viguerie, Ron Paul, and Oliver North. The columnist George Will, too, continues to write against state executions.

Still, both Ms. Beaudoin and Hyden say they were nervous when they began traveling around the country, talking to student groups and conservative colleges and tea party gatherings in the South, wondering how they would be received.

“In 2013, we debuted at [the Conservative Political Action Conference], and we just got a great response,” Beaudoin says. “We were welcomed with open arms, and we've been back every year since that.” 

At a recent tea party gathering in Georgia, Hyden says, “I had one activist walk up to me and whisper, ‘I’ve been against the death penalty for 30 years, I’ve just never told anybody.’ So we’re finding that many of us were already against it, we just didn’t know how to voice our concerns. And now we’re providing a forum. And we’re giving voice and filling a void that catered to conservatives.”

They find themselves working “shoulder to shoulder” with progressives, who have long emphasized human rights, the racial disparities within the criminal justice system, and the egalitarian aims of social equality. But their arguments are profoundly different, they note.

“We conservatives in Nebraska were able to frame this debate as an inefficient government program that wasn’t working for us,” says Sen. Colby Coash, a member of Nebraska’s nonpartisan, unicameral legislature, who led the campaign to ban capital punishment and overturn the governor’s veto. “If any other program in our state had been so costly, so inefficient, and so unsuccessful, we would have gotten rid of it a long time ago.”

Similarly, Hyden tells groups that capital punishment violates three core conservative principles: pro-life values, the importance of fiscal responsibility, and limited government.

“It’s not representative of a limited government to give an error-prone state the power to kill its citizens,” he says. 

Other Republican-led states also are mulling their stance on the death penalty. In February, for example, a measure in Montana was defeated by one vote in the House after the state's Senate voted in favor of ending capital punishment.

"The efforts and arguments of Nebraska conservatives are part of an emerging trend in the Republican Party, evidenced by the involvement of conservative Republicans in legislative efforts to repeal the death penalty in other states, such as Kansas, Kentucky, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming," Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said in a statement after the Nebraska vote.

Many across the nation have been disturbed by botched executions in states like Oklahoma, renewing questions about the humanity of lethal injections. In April, the Supreme Court heard arguments contesting one of the drugs used in a lethal injection cocktail. And 150 of these inmates, too, have been exonerated over the past few decades.

“I supported the death penalty for a long time,” Hyden says. “I’m kind of ashamed to say that I was willing to compromise my principles. I thought good conservative boys and girls supported the death penalty, so I tried to grasp, to try to find a way to support it. I told myself if more lives are saved through deterrence than are wrongly executed by the state.”

“But first of all, that’s a utilitarian argument, and utilitarianism doesn’t belong in conservatism because it ignores individual rights and the liberties of American citizens,” he continues. “But beyond that, I found all the studies that show that the death penalty doesn’t deter murder. And even states that have repealed it have seen their murder rates go down afterwards.” 

And for a growing number of religious conservatives, capital punishment just doesn’t consistently fit into their views.

“One of the things that I said on the floor during the debate was, we’re all created by God, we have a limited time here, and then he will decide when we’re supposed to go home,” Senator Coash says. “And government shouldn’t really be messing around with that plan in deciding when somebody is going to die, and that shouldn’t be our role.”

Coash and others, too, found that the arduous legal protections and mandatory appeals processes – which are meant to safeguard against mistakes – often become an agonizing ordeal for victims’ families.

“I don’t speak for all victims when I say this, but some of the victims’ families that I talked to said, ‘Look, when a person does something to your family, and a judge says for the horrendous crime that happened against your loved one, the state’s going to put this person to death,’ and then that doesn’t happen for 20, 30 years, they look at me and say, ‘Senator, where’s the justice in that?’ ” says Coash.

However, it would be an overstatement to say that every Nebraska Republican was pleased with Wednesday’s vote. And support for the death penalty remains strong among Republicans nationally.

“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” Governor Ricketts said in a statement. “While the Legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue.”

But the historic repeal of the Nebraska law gives conservative activists like Beaudoin hope that progressives and conservatives can find common political ground when they can and work towards common goals when possible – even if for profoundly different reasons.

"The political scene in this country is so divisive, and people are just not willing to work together,” she says. “But on this issue, and I think on criminal justice reform in general, conservatives and progressives are coming together.  

“That’s the thing about the death penalty,” she says of the left and right working together. “There are so many reasons to be against it.”  

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