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A Red State Ends the Death Penalty: How Conservatives in Nebraska Came to Reject Capital Punishment

On May 27, Nebraska became the first red state since North Dakota in the 1970s to repeal the death penalty. As the country has shifted away from the death penalty in the past decade, many interpreted this development as a progressive movement. Before Nebraska, a string of blue states – New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland – had repealed the death penalty. Nebraska challenged this dominant narrative, with Republicans leading efforts to end the death penalty. Without this conservative support, a repeal bill would have had no chance of passing the Nebraska Legislature.

Developments in Nebraska show the growing support across the political spectrum for ending the death penalty. Of course, a number of states (red and blue alike) still have capital punishment, so the vote by the Nebraska Legislature far from represents the final chapter in efforts to end the death penalty across the nation. The campaign in Nebraska does, though, provide insight into why more conservatives are rejecting the death penalty and how to make further progress toward ending it for good in the United States.

A History of Close Calls

The campaign to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty did not achieve success overnight, but only after decades of persistently highlighting the problems with capital punishment. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, Omaha State Senator Ernie Chambers (an independent) consistently introduced legislation to repeal the state’s death penalty over the course of four decades. On several previous occasions, bills ending or limiting the death penalty introduced by Chambers passed the Nebraska Legislature, yet each time they fell short of becoming law. In 1979, the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill repealing the death penalty but the Governor vetoed it. Twenty years later, the Governor also vetoed a bill establishing a two-year moratorium on executions in Nebraska.

As this debate played out, many of the problems prompting doubts about the death penalty nationally also became apparent in Nebraska. Most notably, mistakes by law enforcement showed that capital punishment was far from foolproof, and at times put innocent life at risk. After a 1985 rape and murder in Beatrice, Nebraska, officials focused their investigation on six individuals – the “Beatrice Six” – despite the lack of physical evidence connecting them to the crime. When threatened with the death penalty, some of these suspects confessed so as to avoid being executed. Collectively, the Beatrice Six spent more than 75 years in prison before DNA testing in 2008 finally proved their innocence.

In addition to such mistakes, Nebraska’s death penalty failed to affect crime in any meaningful way. The state had carried out only three executions since reinstating the death penalty in the 1970s and none since 1997. Like other states, Nebraska ran into obstacles obtaining the drugs necessary for lethal injections. Though rarely used, Nebraska’s death penalty still inflicted a fiscal toll on local counties pursuing death sentences due to the prolonged legal process associated with capital cases. One Nebraska county nearly went bankrupt as a result of two capital cases, and in response mortgaged its ambulances.

This broken system – characterized by ineffectiveness, egregious error, and high costs – did little to inspire the confidence of many conservatives. In this environment, a number of Republican lawmakers stepped up to play a leadership role in repealing Nebraska’s death penalty during the 2015 legislative debate.

Conservatives Take Ownership of Repeal

As in years past, Chambers introduced legislation in 2015 to repeal the death penalty. At the time, however, the prospects of this bill succeeding seemed bleak. No red state had repealed the death penalty in over 40 years, plus Nebraska’s governor, Pete Ricketts, was on record supporting the death penalty. Passing repeal legislation through a Republican-controlled legislature by itself was a tall order, and the further task of mustering a veto-proof majority struck many as out of reach. In an April 2015 article on Nebraska, the progressive magazine Mother Jones bluntly said: “The [repeal] bill is unlikely to become law.”

This pessimism, however, did not deter a group of conservative lawmakers from coming together to push for an end to Nebraska’s death penalty. On April 15, at a press conference sponsored by Nebraska Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, seven Republican state senators called for repeal. A combination of fiscal and pro-life concerns motivated these senators in taking this view. “I [believe] life begins at conception and should be protected until God calls the individual home,” said Senator Tommy Garrett. Senator Colby Coash, who played the lead role in assembling Republican support in the Senate, emphasized that ending the death penalty would root out “government waste.”

These Republican senators were not alone, as a number of individuals and organizations in Nebraska also mobilized at the grassroots level to support repeal. The Catholic bishops of Nebraska issued a statement in support of ending the death penalty, noting that “We must all be careful to temper our natural outrage against violent crime with a recognition of the dignity of all people, even the guilty.” Other influential faith leaders in Nebraska made similar pleas.

A number of murder victims’ families also voiced opposition to the death penalty – a system they saw as failing them by prolonging the legal process and inflicting additional harm. Miriam Kelle, whose brother Michael Ryan was murdered in 1984, experienced this aspect of the death penalty firsthand. After enduring three decades of capital appeals in her brother’s case, Kelle urged lawmakers to recognize the pain inflicted by the death penalty: “If we had been given a sentence of life, without the possibility of parole, we would have left the legal system behind 30 years ago … and had time to focus our energy on our family, our grief and not this never-ending fight for justice.”

Concerns for murder victims’ families, protecting life, and cutt