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Before Nebraska, a string of blue states – New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland – had repealed the death penalty.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 cutting government waste all represented compelling reasons for conservatives to end Nebraska’s death penalty. In other words, it was not in spite of but because of their conservative principles that many Nebraska Republicans supported repeal of the death penalty.

“We Were All Number 30”

The strong momentum for repeal in the Nebraska Legislature caught many proponents of the death penalty off guard. Despite the death penalty’s reputation as a controversial issue, the repeal bill passed the Nebraska Judiciary Committee unanimously. From there it headed to the full unicameral legislature (unique to Nebraska) for consideration. Though a unicameral legislature with one less chamber seems to provide an easier path to pass a bill into a law, that is hardly the case. The Nebraska Legislature must approve a bill three times before it goes to the governor. Should the bill face a veto or filibuster, it needs to meet the high threshold of 30 or 33 votes (out of 49), respectively, to pass.

Despite statements and press conferences by Governor Ricketts urging lawmakers to keep the death penalty on the books, the repeal bill passed on the first reading with a veto-proof majority. Shortly before the second vote, the Governor made a surprise announcement: he claimed that Nebraska had succeeded in purchasing the lethal injection drugs needed for an execution. It later came out that Nebraska had tried to illegally import lethal injection drugs from India, and that the FDA would block these drugs’ entry into the country. Nevertheless, at the time, the announcement tried to attract wavering senators by convincing them that Nebraska could make its death penalty work. This tactic failed to stop the Legislature from sending a repeal bill to the governor – the bill passed 30-16 on the second vote and 32-15 on the third vote.

As expected, Ricketts vetoed the bill after it reached his desk. With 32 senators on record in favor of repeal, Ricketts and his allies needed to persuade three legislators to oppose repeal to keep a veto override from succeeding. A few days before the veto override vote, Senator Jerry Johnson announced that he would switch his vote and not support repeal. During the veto override debate, Senator John Murante also announced that he would no longer support repeal. While the debate continued on the Senate floor, both proponents and opponents of the death penalty focused their attention on Senator Robert Hilkemann, a Republican from Omaha, who would be the decisive vote.

Hilkemann supported the death penalty when he entered the legislature in 2014. A turning point came after meeting Ray Krone, one of the more than 150 individuals in the United States wrongfully sentenced to death and later exonerated. Convicted on faulty bite mark evidence, Krone spent 10 years in prison before DNA proved his innocence (he now serves as the Director of Membership and Training for Witness to Innocence). This personal story detailing the injustice of the death penalty stuck with Hilkemann, and was the impetus for him supporting repeal during the first three votes.

On the day of the veto override debate, Hilkemann received visits and phone calls from the Governor, the mayor of Omaha, law enforcement officials, and others urging him to sustain the Governor’s veto. Hilkemann had even prepared a speech in case he changed his mind and voted against repeal. But at the end of the day, he “could not not push green,” as he put it. Amidst the intense lobbying, Hilkemann recalled advice from a recent sermon that gave him strength: “Always remember that Jesus has got your back.” With this mindset, Hilkemann cast the deciding vote in favor of repeal, as the veto override succeeded 30-19 with no votes to spare.

Afterwards, Hilkemann perhaps made the statement that best summed up the legislative effort: “We were all number 30.”

Building Off the Victory in Nebraska

The victory in Nebraska has reverberated across the country. It prompted conservative commentator George Will to write, “Capital punishment is withering away.” Ron Paul praised Nebraska for scrapping capital punishment – or, as he put it, the “Ultimate Corrupt, Big Government Program.” Pat Nolan, who has been one of the leaders on the right advocating criminal justice reform, saw the Nebraska vote as a turning point. “You can’t get more red than Nebraska, and the cooperation of flinty conservatives with urban blacks was unstoppable,” Nolan explained in an interview with The New Yorker.

Indeed, the mood on the death penalty in the country appears to be shifting, with Nebraska representing a microcosm of the growing bipartisan support for its repeal. Another red state, Montana, came within a single vote of passing a repeal bill through its house in 2015. In Kansas, the Republican Party stripped its pro-death penalty plank from the state platform and the Kansas College Republicans called for repeal of the death penalty. This past March, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition – a leading organization of Latino evangelicals representing 3,000 congregations – adopted a resolution supporting repeal of the death penalty in a unanimous vote.

This growing opposition to the death penalty, combined with the inability of states to obtain lethal injection drugs needed for executions, has put the future of capital punishment in doubt. Ending the death penalty in the US is within reach, but there is still much work left to do.

In Nebraska, it is important to protect this crucial victory. The Governor has vowed to try to execute the people on Nebraska’s death row – despite the repeal bill being retroactive – and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a referendum effort to bring back the death penalty. As a result, it is likely that the issue will be on the ballot in Nebraska in 2016. If you live in Nebraska, oppose reinstating the death penalty; if you don’t, encourage anyone you know in Nebraska to oppose reinstatement efforts. To volunteer and learn more about the campaign to keep Nebraska death penalty free, visit Nebraskans for Public Safety online at nebraskansforpublicsafety.org.

More generally, start a discussion on the death penalty with any pro-life groups that you are involved with and engage them on this issue. The legislative victory in Nebraska made evident the powerful impact of pro-life and conservative voices on the debate over the death penalty. If these voices continue to grow louder, it can only be a matter of time before the death penalty of today in the US becomes a relic of the past.

Ben Jones is a campaign strategist for Equal Justice USA (EJUSA) and works in support of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a project of EJUSA. He can be reached at benj@ejusa.org.

Works Cited

1. “Timeline: Ernie Chambers’ Crusade Against the Death Penalty,” Omaha World-Herald, May 31, 2015, http://www.omaha.com/news/legislature/timeline-ernie-chambers-crusade-against-the-death-penalty/article_abb1b9ba-c557-53d9-94de-e7575abdca53.html.

2. Jeffrey Stern, “The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett,” The Atlantic, June 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/06/execution-clayton-lockett/392069/.

3. Matt Maly, “An Unlikely Fiscal Fight Comes to Nebraska,” Rare, May 14, 2015, http://rare.us/story/an-unlikely-fiscal-fight-comes-to-nebraska/.

4. Pema Levy, “Nebraska Conservatives Take on GOP Governor Over Death Penalty,” Mother Jones, April 16, 2015, http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2015/04/nebraska-republicans-take-gop-governor-over-death-penalty.

5. Anna Gronewold, “Republican Senators Rally Against Nebraska Death Penalty,” Associated Press, April 15, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/apr/15/republican-senators-rally-against-nebraska-death-p/?page=all.

6. “Nebraska Bishops: Repeal the Death Penalty,” WOWT NBC Omaha, March 17, 2015, http://www.wowt.com/home/headlines/Nebraska-Bishops--Repeal-the-Death-Penalty-296634531.html.

7. Michael O’Connor, “Religious Leaders Call for Death Penalty Repeal; ‘I Hope We Will Choose to Value Life,’ Bishop Says,” Omaha World-Herald, May 13, 2015, http://www.omaha.com/news/metro/religious-leaders-call-for-death-penalty-repeal-i-hope-we/article_96c3af3e-f987-11e4-8d09-1b5f9635d65b.html.

8. Joe Chiodo, “Murder Victims’ Families Look to End Death Penalty, Others Disagree,” WOWT NBC Omaha, March 5, http://www.wowt.com/home/headlines/Murder-Victims-Families-Look-To-End-Death-Penalty-Others-Disagree-295116861.html.

9. Sarah Craft, “Your Guide to the Nebraska Death Penalty Debate,” Equal Justice USA, April 23, 2015, http://ejusa.org/newsline/article/2015/04/23/your-guide-nebraska-death-penalty-debate.

10. See, e.g., Pete Ricketts, “Protect Public Safety,” Weekly Columns, April 14, 2015, https://governor.nebraska.gov/press/protect-public-safety.

11. Paul Hammel and Martha Stoddard, “Nebraska Has Purchased Drugs Necessary for Lethal Injections, Gov. Ricketts Says,” Omaha World-Herald, May 14, 2015, http://www.omaha.com/news/crime/nebraska-has-purchased-drugs-necessary-for-lethal-injections-gov-ricketts/article_3423d60a-fa8c-11e4-a761-1f25f74fc5ba.html.

12. Joe Duggan and Paul Hammel, “FDA Says Nebraska Can’t Legally Import Drug Needed for Lethal Injections,” Omaha World-Herald, June 1, 2015, http://www.omaha.com/news/legislature/fda-says-nebraska-can-t-legally-import-drug-needed-for/article_0dc1c2d0-0638-11e5-979e-77b47170b978.html.

13. Joanne Young, “Ricketts Vetoes Death Penalty Repeal,” Lincoln Journal Star, May 26, 2015, http://journalstar.com/legislature/ricketts-vetoes-death-penalty-repeal/article_b6a9cd7d-22c5-52a8-8b4d-ef10a8aeb7ff.html.

14. Joe Duggan, Paul Hammel, and Martha Stoddard, “Hours of Suspense, Emotion Lead Up to a Landmark Vote for Legislators on Repealing Death Penalty,” Omaha World-Herald, May 28, 2015, http://www.omaha.com/news/legislature/hours-of-suspense-emotion-lead-up-to-a-landmark-vote/article_32726c27-0ef4-5415-9d07-f90f08707602.html.

15. “Innocence and the Death Penalty,” Death Penalty Information Center, 2015, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-death-penalty.

16. “Exonerees: Ray Krone,” Witness to Innocence, http://www.witnesstoinnocence.org/exonerees/ray-krone.html.

17. Robert Hilkemann, “As I See It – Thursday, April 16, 2015,” Nebraska Legislative Webpage of Sen. Robert Hilkemann, April 17, 2015, http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist04/2015/04/17/as-i-see-it-thursday-april-16-2015/.

18. Don Walton, “Sen. Hilkemann’s Death Penalty Journey,” Lincoln Journal Star, May 29, 2015, http://journalstar.com/legislature/sen-hilkemann-s-death-penalty-journey/article_6dec1502-acd0-5b49-9755-05ed613e0719.html.

19. Ted Genoways, “Inside the Unlikely the Coalition that just Got the Death Penalty Banned in Nebraska,” Mother Jones, May 28, 2015, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/05/nebraska-ends-death-penalty.

20. George Will, “Capital Punishment’s Slow Death,” Washington Post, May 20, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/capital-punishments-slow-death/2015/05/20/f3c14d32-fe4f-11e4-8b6c-0dcce21e223d_story.html.

21. Ron Paul, “Death Penalty: Ultimate Corrupt, Big Government Program,” Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, June 14, 2015, http://www.ronpaulinstitute.org/archives/featured-articles/2015/june/14/death-penalty-the-ultimate-corrupt-big-government-program/.

22. Bill Keller, “Prison Revolt,” The New Yorker, June 29, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/29/prison-revolt.

23. Mike Dennison, “House Deadlocks on Bill to Abolish Death Penalty in Montana,” Billings Gazette, February 23, 2015, http://billingsgazette.com/news/government-and-politics/house-deadlocks-on-bill-to-abolish-death-penalty-in-montana/article_d8006806-c2ef-5168-a5b4-0fc60d467c5f.html.

24. Andy Marso, “Death Penalty Opponents See GOP Support for Practice Eroding,” Topeka Capital-Journal, August 19, 2014, http://cjonline.com/news/2014-08-19/death-penalty-opponents-see-gop-support-practice-eroding.

25. Edward Eveld, “Kansas College Republicans Want Repeal of the State’s Death Penalty,” Kansas City Star, August 20, 2015, http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article31648391.html.

26. Jonathan Merritt, “In a Groundbreaking Vote, Latino Evangelicals Call for End to Death Penalty,” Washington Post, March 30, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/in-a-groundbreaking-vote-latino-evangelicals-call-for-end-to-death-penalty/2015/03/30/4c8fef20-d71a-11e4-bf0b-f648b95a6488_story.html.

27. Shubhankar Chhokra, “Nebraska’s Death Penalty Fight Isn’t Over,” National Review, June 11, 2015, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/419625/nebraskas-death-penalty-fight-isnt-over-shubhankar-chhokra.

28. JoAnne Young, “Ricketts Makes Another Donation to Pro-Death Penalty Group,” Columbus Telegram, July 31, 2015, http://columbustelegram.com/news/state-and-regional/ricketts-makes-another-donation-to-pro-death-penalty-group/article_cf9055b8-1b51-5ac5-921a-cff9d6485eb0.html.

29. Grant Schulte, “Fate of Nebraska’s Death Penalty Likely to Rest with Voters,” Associated Press, August 26, 2015, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/a6fa81941bae494b8f7f773d63b68ead/nebraska-pro-death-penalty-group-submitting-signatures.

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