Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wait, Nebraska banned the death penalty?

Before yesterday, the last six states to ban the death penalty were New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland. One thing each of those states has in common is the presence of a robust Democratic Party that, at least occasionally, controls the legislative and executive branches of the state.That is not really true of the latest state to ban the death penalty-Nebraska. Depending on how one counts, Nebraska has had 41 governors since it became a state in 1867 and only 14 have been Democrats (2 of those Democrats were elected by "electoral fusion" and not on the Democratic ticket). The only Democrats to win the Presidential vote in Nebraska in the 20th or 21st Century are Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt (although only for his first two terms), and Lyndon Johnson. Suffice it to say that Nebraska is a conservative state.

Nevertheless, as the New York Times reports here, Nebraska has banned the death penalty and it did so in spectacular fashion. Namely, Nebraska's unicameral legislature passed a bill banning the death penalty and then overrode the veto of that bill by Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts. In fact, as the Times notes, the Legislature passed the bill banning the death penalty by veto proof majorities three times before it sent the bill to the Governor's desk.

So how did this ban get passed in the first place? Because death penalty opponents were able to muster a coalition of Nebraska legislators by combining legislators with  moral objections to the death penalty with fiscally conservative legislators by pointing out that the death penalty was inefficient and expensive. No one has been executed in Nebraska since 1998. Although as Judge Kopf noted over at Hercules and the Umpire, a man who had been on Nebraska's death row for 30 years recently died of brain cancer. But that probably is not what anyone had in mind when the man was sentenced to death. 

Governor Ricketts issued a statement saying that "words cannot express how appalled [he was that Nebraska] lost a critical tool" to protect Nebraska's citizens. It will be interesting to see if the murder rate in Nebraska increases as a result of the death penalty being replaced with life imprisonment. Care to make a prediction on whether the rate will increase Mr. Torvik?

The Times reports that Catholic bishops in Nebraska issued a statement criticizing Governor Ricketts's veto, arguing that "the death penalty does not deter crime, nor doe is make Nebraska safer or promote the common good in our state." I could not find the statement on the Nebraska Catholic Conference website but did find this statement explaining the reasons why the bishops opposed the death penalty. It is worth a read.

What do you make of this Mr. Torvik? What do you think of Governor Ricketts's argument that the death penalty is an effective deterrent? Do people think about the maximum penalty for a crime before deciding whether or not to break the law? I tend to doubt that people engage in that sort of cost/benefit analysis. But assuming they do, is a possible deterrence effect a good factor to consider in determining what is the appropriate penalty for a crime? And, if so how much is the benefit of deterrence offset by the possible tragedy of executing an innocent person?

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