“WE GOT the state out of the killing business today,” Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers said Wednesday, according to the Omaha World-Herald. His state would not be the first to live without the death penalty; it would be the 19th. It also would not be the first to eliminate it recently; Maryland, among others, marked earlier points in the trend. But Nebraska is remarkable in two ways: It is deep-red, and the legislature’s vote against executions was overwhelming. It is therefore the latest manifestation of a growing and positive movement, bridging left and right, toward smart justice reform.
The vote in the one-house legislature was 32 to 15, a resounding margin. Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) promised to veto the measure, but lawmakers are poised to override him. They should — and leaders in other states, including Virginia, should take their example.
Mr. Ricketts went to great lengths to neutralize the arguments of death-penalty opponents. He dug up a case in which a murderer sentenced to life in prison eventually got out and committed sexual assault. The death penalty, he insisted, plays an “important role in prosecuting criminals, protecting our families, and ensuring that criminals remain locked behind bars.” But, since 1973, there have been more than 140 examples nationwide of people sentenced to death who were later exonerated, pardoned or saw their charges dropped. Judges can adequately protect public safety without risking the heinous possibility of executing innocent people by locking up convicted murderers for the rest of their lives and blocking parole.
Mr. Ricketts also procured drugs for use in lethal-injection procedures — which are increasingly difficult for state officials, because suppliers don’t want to take part in executions — to make the point that the state still has a “functional death penalty.” Yet the death penalty is wrong even if prison officials have the right drugs and condemned prisoners die peacefully.
The possibility of killing the innocent is only one reason Nebraska’s lawmakers voted the way they did. Some were motivated by religion, finding the death penalty incompatible with the imperative to cherish human life. Others objected to the cost of administering a system that demands exceptional care and still makes mistakes. “If capital punishment were any other program that was so inefficient and so costly to the taxpayer, we would have gotten rid of it a long time ago,” state Sen. Colby Coash said . We would add that, regardless of your creed or your concern about public budgets, the death penalty is hostile to the essential dignity that civilized societies afford all human beings.
Conservatives everywhere should consider what’s happening in Nebraska. One place that could use some change is Virginia, the last jurisdiction in the Washington area that still executes people. The General Assembly killed a bill this year that would have limited the application of the death penalty to cases where there is conclusive evidence of guilt — DNA or a voluntary confession, for example. This would have a step in the right direction — if not the leap that Nebraska is taking.
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