“It’s not just about the procurement of drugs,” said Marc Hyden of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, an organization that sprouted up in Montana several years ago and has since expanded nationally. “It’s not pro-life because it risks innocent life. It’s not fiscally responsible because it costs millions more dollars than life without parole.” Yet Nebraska’s bumbling and occasionally shady attempts to carry out death sentences—along with incidents in neighboring states like the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma—have given rise to another argument that sells among conservatives: the death penalty is just another example of government run amok.
“At the end of the day, this is just another big government program that’s really dangerous and expensive but doesn’t achieve any of its goals,” Hyden told me, summarizing his pitch to Republicans. “They don’t need to ask themselves, ‘Do some people deserve to die?’ The question they need to ask themselves is, do they trust an error-prone government to fairly, efficiently and properly administer a program that metes out death to its citizens? I think the answer to that is a resounding no.”
For liberal activists who have long opposed the death penalty on the grounds that it is immoral and an ineffective means of deterring violent crime, the conservatives have been a welcome, if unlikely, allies. “This has been a slow, steady move toward repeal,” said Stacy Anderson, executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Danielle Conrad, executive director of the state chapter of the ACLU, cited the state’s unicameral, non-partisan legislature—unique in the U.S.—and a recent term-limits law that facilitated the election of more libertarian-leaning senators in recent years. While advocates say the death penalty has rarely if ever factored into election campaigns, it has been kept alive by the state’s longest-serving legislator (and its first African American state senator), Ernie Chambers, who has championed a ban for decades. (The new term limits forced him to sit out a term before his reelection in 2012.) “Each time that the Nebraska legislature takes this up, we get a little bit further down the road, a little bit closer to repealing the death penalty,” Conrad said.
Support for repeal reached its apex last week when, during a third round of voting, 32 out of the 49 senators backed legislation that went to the governor’s desk. Ricketts has aggressively lobbied legislators to sustain his veto, arguing that the death penalty was necessary and announcing that he had struck a deal with a pharmaceutical company to obtain the drugs needed to carry it out. “Repealing the death penalty sends the wrong message to Nebraskans who overwhelming support capital punishment and look to government to strengthen public safety, not weaken it,” the governor said in his veto message. He urged citizens to contact their senators, and he said the decision over whether to override his veto would “test the true meaning of representative government” and whether the 10 men now on death row would ever receive their rightful sentence.