Death-penalty politics shift

Register Guard Opinion Editiorial

Eugene, OR - May 26, 2015

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts says he plans to veto a bill passed last week that would abolish his state’s death penalty, declaring “the Legislature is out of touch with Nebraskans.”

It may be the governor, not state lawmakers, who is out of touch.

In the state’s unicameral legislature, which has 49 state senators, it takes 30 votes to override a veto by the governor. Thirty-two senators voted in favor of ending the death penalty. That means Ricketts will have to persuade some lawmakers to change their minds if he wants to prevent Nebraska from becoming the 19th state — and the first red state in recent years — to formally abolish the death penalty.

Nebraska has been steadily moving away from the death penalty for years. The Legislature voted to ban executions in 1979, but the move fell prey to gubernatorial veto. A temporary moratorium in 1999 met a similar fate, and a proposed ban in 2007 failed by a single vote in the Legislature. Nearly a quarter century has passed since the state’s last execution.

Nebraska’s Legislature is nonpartisan, but it is dominated by conservatives. Its support for ending the death penalty reflects a growing shift within the nation’s political right. While Republicans once defended capital punishment as a necessary deterrent, a growing number have begun supporting repeal for religious reasons, while others point to wrongful convictions and botched executions. Others cite it as a prime example of a wasteful government program.

Executions have dropped to a two-decade low in the United States. Thirty-five people were executed in 2014, compared with a peak of 98 just 15 years ago. In 43 states, no executions were carried out last year. So far, 18 states have abolished the death penalty.

In Oregon, voters abolished the death penalty in 1914, reinstated it in 1920, repealed it in 1964 and reinstated it again in 1978. After the Oregon Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1981, voters approved a constitutionally proper version in 1984.

Oregon carried out its last two executions in 1996 and 1997, during Gov. John Kitzhaber’s first term — the state’s first executions since 1962. Since then there have been none, and three years ago Kitzhaber, saying he believed the death penalty has been unjustly administered and is morally wrong, declared a moratorium on executions as long as he remained governor. Gov. Kate Brown, who succeeded Kitzhaber following his resignation, says she intends keep the moratorium in place.

It’s time for Oregon to have a long-overdue debate about the death penalty, a discussion that ideally leads to a statewide vote that clarifies where citizens stand on the issue.

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