By Jim Esch
Since 1976, the year the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ended the moratorium on executions in the United States, State Senator Ernie Chambers has fought every year he has been in office to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska. It has not been an easy fight.
Of his first 22 bills, 20 either died in committee or were indefinitely postponed. The other two passed but did not have enough support to override gubernatorial vetoes. But then in 2015, 39 years after Chambers’ first attempt, the Nebraska Legislature suddenly voted overwhelmingly to abolish the death penalty and replace it with a mandatory life sentence. Which begs the question, how did this happen? How during one of the most divided and partisan times in American history did 15 Republicans, 13 Democrats, one Independent, and a Libertarian override Governor Pete Ricketts’ veto and abolish the death penalty in one the reddest states in the Union?
The answer is both surprising and uniquely Nebraskan.
It begins with State Senator Colby Coash, who elected in 2008 to represent Legislative District 27 in Lincoln. He was the first Republican to win the seat since 1972, ironically the same year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled existing death penalty sentencing laws in the United States were unconstitutional, ushering in a brief four-year halt to executions. He is also the first Republican to spearhead the fight to abolish the death penalty in the State of Nebraska. Not to say there weren’t Republicans opposed to the death penalty over the decades, there were. But this was the first time a Republican State Senator made the fight his own, and that made all the difference.
Until college, Senator Coash was a death penalty supporter. Even traveling to the state penitentiary for an execution, thinking it “would be something to see, to be a part of justice, to be part of an execution.” However, upon witnessing the troubling contrast between the party-like atmosphere of the death penalty supporters and the silent prayer vigil of its opponents, he realized, “I was on the wrong side of that debate that night ... I always thought if I ever had the opportunity, I would not be on that side of the debate again. I would not be part of a blood lust. The death penalty in not justice, it is revenge.”
This conviction, coupled with facing the end of his time in the Unicameral and inspired by a leadership course he was taking for his Master’s degree, convinced him that now was the opportunity to take his stand. But to win the debate, he would need a different approach. Simply arguing the morality of the death penalty had not been successful in the past. Instead, he reframed the debate in terms of conservative philosophy, arguing that the death penalty was yet another example of government ineffectiveness and waste.
He contended that since the last execution in Nebraska was nearly 20 years ago, it was neither an effective form of deterrence nor justice. He compared it to a tool sitting in your garage that you haven’t used in 20 years. If you’re not going to use it, what’s the point in having it? Furthermore, it is an expensive tool.
A recent study commissioned by Retain a Just Nebraska, the group leading the campaign to abolish the practice, estimates the death penalty costs the state $14.6 million a year. These costs are largely associated with the lengthy appeals process and separate facilities for death row inmates. Not to mention the scarcity and increasing cost to acquire the drugs necessary to carry out executions. For many Republican Senators, this reframing allowed them to vote “yes” for the repeal in the name of smaller government.
What also helped pass this historic bill is Nebraska’s unique form of government. Unlike every other state in the union, our Legislature is a single chamber or unicameral. More importantly, it is officially nonpartisan. While the parties still have great influence over the proceedings in Lincoln, there are no party caucuses or leadership hierarchies. Instead, coalitions form around issues. This encourages cooperation across party lines and allows Senators the freedom to think more independently.
Lastly, due to term limits, there were 15 new Senators in 2015 bringing a fresh perspective to the debate. Before term limits, this had been become more or less a symbolic fight. Every year a bill repealing the death penalty was offered by Senator Chambers, and every year it was soundly defeated. This time nearly a third of the legislature had never taken up this issue before.
This victory for bipartisanship, however, was short lived. Almost immediately an effort to place the issue on the 2016 ballot started. The group Nebraskans for the Death Penalty was formed, co-chaired by State Treasurer Don Stenberg and State Senator Beau McCoy. The group raised over $900,000, $300,000 coming from the Governor and his father, Joe, the founder of T.D. Ameritrade, to mount an aggressive petition drive. By the end of the summer in 2015, they had collected over 143,000 verified signatures, easily surpassing the 56,000 needed to place it on the 2016 ballot.
Those supporting the death penalty argue there are crimes so heinous that death is the only way to serve justice and protect society. In fact, many of the Senators supporting the death penalty went into graphic detail regarding the grisly murders committed by the ten men on death row during the floor debate.
They also dispute the estimated costs of the death penalty, arguing that most of the costs are already embedded in the budget, such as the salaries for prosecutors whose jobs would not go away if the death penalty ended. And even if it is expensive, justice should not have a price tag. They contend it works as a deterrent to protect correction officers in particular. Prosecutors say the death penalty is useful to encourage plea bargains and testimony against co-defendants.
Opponents to the death penalty, like Judge Ronald Reagan, a retired Sarpy County District Judge, who served on the three-judge panel that sentenced serial killer John Joubert, say the death penalty is broken and beyond repair. Judge Reagan has lent his support to Retain a Just Nebraska, saying, “It is, quite simply, a state-sanctioned revenge which has no deterrent effect and no place in a civilized society. Keeping it in Nebraska law will not lower the murder rate nor furnish any protection to our law officers. Those who commit murders give no thought to either apprehension or punishment, and removing them from free society with the least expense — life imprisonment — is the appropriate sentence.”
Both sides claim public opinion is on their side. But no matter what side you are on, your voice will make a difference. There are few opportunities to express your voice on such an important issue.