LB 543, Nebraska’s death penalty repeal bill, was successfully filibustered this week by a minority of the state’s senators. During the course of two days of debate and occasional voting, it became clear that the votes to pass the bill might have been there, but the two-thirds majority needed to break a filibuster was not.
Nebraska’s death penalty, like capital punishment elsewhere, suffers from arbitrariness, unfairness, and general uselessness, facts that are dawning on a lot of legislators in a lot of states. The defense of the death penalty in the Nebraska debate was not passionate, and relied on the citing of discredited deterrence studies and a vague sense the executions somehow equal justice.
Nebraska’s embarrassing attempts to acquire lethal injection drugs may have been partially responsible for the sheepishness with which the pro-death penalty arguments seemed to be infused. But more likely it’s just that the days of cheering for executions and celebrating the death penalty are over.
An op-ed from Nebraska’s state Senator Colby Coash that appeared the day the debate began illustrates this transformation. Coash recounts how as a college freshman in 1994 he attended, and joined in, the celebration at Nebraska’s death house of the midnight execution of a man named Willie Otey, a celebration he likens to a New Years’ Eve party.
“That night, I partied, I chanted, chugged beer and at midnight, I celebrated someone’s death.”
That was almost 20 years ago, and this week Senator Coash was one of the leaders in convincing a majority of his fellow legislators to support abolition of Nebraska’s death penalty. He writes:
“I made a decision during my shame that I would no longer be a part of someone’s death.”
This same decision, in one form or another, is being made by Americans all across this country. It has led to 6 state abolitions in 6 years, and to a dramatic drop in death sentences, including in places like Texas. Less than 60% of the public now finds the death penalty morally acceptable, and less than half support it when alternative punishments are suggested.
In Nebraska, this week’s filibuster may have just delayed the inevitable. Perhaps we are losing our interest in endorsing death, and this is leading to the slow but sure demise of capital punishment.