On May 27th, the Nebraska legislature made the landmark decision to ban the death penalty in the state. A vote by the legislature came down in favor of overturning Governor Pete Rickett’s attempt to veto a ban on capital punishment in the state. And while some may be surprised that the red state has made this determination, it can be better understood as a predictable result of long-term efforts to raise the level of education regarding the practice and its role in modern society. The state has a relatively long history of drafting anti-death penalty legislation, each time failing to come into force due to gubernatorial vetoes, and Conservatives in the most recent debate heartily backing the ban.
An organization called “Nebraskans for the Death Penalty” has already mounted opposition to the most recent, amassing signatures for a petition demanding a state-wide referendum on the matter. Should the requisite number of signatures be gathered, LB 268 would be suspended until at least 2016, when it would be voted on during the general election. But many believe that such efforts will be moot, as the decision may represent a watershed moment for the nation. The tide does seem to be turning as regards capital punishment, as justifications for its existence in our justice system withers under scrutiny.
Changing sentiments on the punishment may in part be due to the results of organizations like the Innocence Project; in over 40% of the cases they’ve handled, inmates have been found to have been wrongly convicted. So too have a number of botched executions drilled home the “cruel and unusual” element of the practice, and pressed us to ask how its implementation can be justified in a country that has such tortures outlawed in its very constitution.
Just 36 countries in the world still have the punishment on the books and implement it. And it’s no surprise to those following the debate that the United States finds itself amongst strange bedfellows when it comes to embracing a punishment the rest of the world long ago determined barbaric. Many of our death penalty “allies” are the very countries we’ve been targeting for oppressive and immoral activities like Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Sudan, to name a few.
Extending beyond the moral arguments into a legal perspective, there remains no justification (if there ever was one) for the practice. The necessity of due process and the number of wrongful convictions that occur on a regular basis ensures that the cost issues associated with the death sentences will remain, so the economic argument remains moot.
Despite the insistence of pundits, the deterrence argument has never passed muster; murder rates consistently tend to be lower in states without the penalty. And the majority of the world’s leading criminologists (88%) share the view that it fails to deter crime. There is also the tendency for states with the death penalty to be so oriented towards punishment a punishment bias, that they completely ignore the root causes of crime (poverty, marginalization, inequity, etc.). Thus, crime rates may actually increase in those states.
And contrary to Gov. Rickett’s assertions, there is no evidence that it assists law enforcement either; in fact, police are most at risk in states where the death penalty exists.
And so once all the arguments have been debunked (as they have been by hundreds of scholars), all that remains in the justification for the death penalty is predicated on the concept of vengeance, rather than justice. And a society guided by wrath is not one that moves us forward either socially or morally.