New Voices

Nebraska Repeals Death Penalty

The Nebraska legislature voted 30-19 to override the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts and abolish the death penalty. Nebraska becomes the 19th state to repeal the death penalty, and the 7th state to do so since 2007. It is the first predominantly Republican state to abolish the death penalty in over 40 years, and state legislators said Republican support was critical to the bipartisan repeal effort. Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said, "This wouldn't have happened without the fiscally responsible Republicans who aren't just beholden to conservative talking points, but are thoughtful about policy." Sen. Colby Coash cited fiscal concerns among his reasons for supporting repeal: "The taxpayers have not gotten the bang for their buck on this death penalty for almost 20 years. This program is broken."  The sponsor of the repeal bill, Independent Senator Ernie Chambers, opened the repeal debate with a reference to the historic nature of the pending vote. “This will be the shining moment of the Nebraska Legislature,” he said. “The world, by anybody’s reckoning, is a place filled with darkness, contention, violence. We today can move to lift part of that cloud of darkness that has been hovering over this state for all these years.”

Justice Stevens Says Death Penalty Unnecessary, Wasteful, and Creates Higher Risk of Error

In a discussion at the George Washington University School of Law, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said the death penalty creates a higher risk of error than other criminal cases and is unfair, unnecessary, and a "terrible waste" of resources. Using the Boston marathon bomber trial as an example, Justice Stevens said jury selection procedures in capital cases produce juries who are "not representative of the community." He said that, under these procedures, "most of the 75%" of Bostonians who opposed the death penalty "could be challenged for cause and do not make it" onto the jury.  "That’s one reason that the death penalty is much more unfair than we thought it was at the time back when we decided the three cases" that reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after the Court had previously ruled its application unconstitutional. Justice Stevens went on to say, "I had expected that the procedures would be more protective of the defendants in death cases than in ordinary criminal cases. And in several respects, ... they in fact are more pro-prosecution. And so the risk of error is larger in death cases than it is in other cases, and that certainly can’t be right." Finally, he compared the death penalty unfavorably to the alternative of life without parole: "it's really not necessary because life imprisonment without parole protects the public at least as well as execution does and so the justification for the death penalty is diminished. And I think if you make a cost-benefit analysis – the cost of the trials and all the rest – it is a terrible waste of society’s resources to have these capital trials that go on for so long and produce an awful lot of unfortunate results."

NEW VOICES: George Will Says "Capital Punishment is Withering Away"

Conservative commentator George Will has decribed capital punishment in America as "withering away." In his syndicated column in the Washington Post, Will outlines a conservative case against the death penalty, highlighting Nebraska's recent legislative vote to repeal capital punishment. Writing that "exonerations of condemned prisoners and botched executions are dismayingly frequent," Will lists three primary reasons why he believes conservatives should oppose capital punishment: "First, the power to inflict death cloaks government with a majesty and pretense of infallibility discordant with conservatism. Second, when capital punishment is inflicted, it cannot later be corrected because of new evidence, so a capital punishment regime must be administered with extraordinary competence. It is, however, a government program...Third, administration of death sentences is so sporadic and protracted that their power to deter is attenuated." Will recognizes that there is an urge to severely punish the worst crimes, saying, "Sentencing to death those who commit heinous crimes satisfies a sense of moral proportionality." However, he says, this satisfaction is "purchased with disproportionate social costs." America, he says, is exhibiting "a healthy squeamishness" about the death penalty "that should herald abolition."

NEW VOICES: Former Georgia Chief Justice and Conservative Republican Leader Oppose Death Penalty

Two prominent Georgians, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher (pictured, l.), and David J. Burge (pictured, r.), the Chairman of Georgia's 5th Congressional District Republican Party, have recently voiced their opposition to the death penalty. Justice Fletcher voted to uphold numerous death sentences during his 15 years on Georgia's highest court.  Since retiring from the Court in 2005, his views have changed.  “With wisdom gained over the past 10 years, I am now convinced there is absolutely no justification for continuing to impose the sentence of death in this country,” Justice Fletcher said. “There can be no doubt that actually innocent persons have been executed in this country,” Justice Fletcher said. He now believes that the death penalty is "morally indefensible" and "makes no business sense." Mr. Burge voiced similar concerns in an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying that "Our government is not perfect, and when you give an imperfect state the power of life and death, innocent lives will inevitably be exposed to the fallibility of the system." He called the death penalty "plagued by frequent errors, inefficiency and waste." A lifelong conservative Republican, Burge stated that "Capital punishment runs counter to core conservative principles of life, fiscal responsibility and limited government. The reality is that capital punishment is nothing more than an expensive, wasteful and risky government program."

Delaware Governor Announces Support for Death Penalty Repeal

Calling the death penalty "an instrument of imperfect justice," Governor Jack Markell (pictured) of Delaware announced on May 7 that he will sign the death penalty repeal bill under consideration in the state legislature if the bill reaches his desk.  The Delaware Senate passed repeal in April by a vote of 11-9. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to hold a hearing soon. Markell had not previously taken a stance on abolishing the death penalty. Upon announcing his decision, he said, "This is not an easy issue. My thinking has changed and I just wanted to give it very careful consideration." The Governor cited recent exonerations and flawed testimony in capital cases as reasons why he believes repeal should pass. "I know this is a really difficult issue for members of the General Assembly," the governor said. "I hope that after considering the arguments as I have, they will reach the same conclusion that I have."  Recent studies of Delaware's death penalty have revealed significant racial disparities in capital sentencing in the state.  More than three-quarters of Delaware's death-row inmates are black or Latino.  No state with more than one death-sentenced defendant has a higher percentage of racial minorities on its death row.

NEW VOICES: Citing Innocence, Misconduct, Creator of Lethal Injection Protocol Calls Death Penalty "Problematic"

Dr. Jay Chapman, the Oklahoma medical examiner who created the three-drug lethal injection protocol that was used from 1982 to 2010, recently told The Guardian that he has doubts about the death penalty.“I am ambivalent about the death penalty – there have been so many incidents of prosecutorial misconduct, or DNA testing that has proved a prisoner’s innocence. It’s problematic," Chapman said. He said he believed lethal injection would be a more humane method of execution, "At that time we put animals to death more humanely than we did human beings – so the idea of using medical drugs seemed a much better alternative.” He found it odd that his name has become so closely associated with lethal injection, saying, “This wasn’t my field, and it wasn’t my purpose in life – I’m a forensic pathologist and my main purpose was to set up a medical examiner’s system for Oklahoma, which is what I did.” Ultimately, concerns about wrongful convictions have given him qualms about capital punishment: “I’ve done autopsies for 50 years and I know what people are capable of doing to others. There are some criminals who have no redeeming features and who will never be rehabilitated – in those cases I would support the death penalty. But I’ve also seen the misconduct that can occur, and the problem is: how do you sort out one from the other?”

Nebraska Repeal Vote Reflects Growing Republican Opposition to Death Penalty

Nebraska's unicameral legislature recently voted 30-13 in favor of repealing the State's death penalty, advancing the bill to a second round of legislative review. (In Nebraska, a bill must pass three times before it is sent to the Governor.)  A majority (17 out of 30) of Republican legislators voted in favor of the bill, which was also supported by 12 Democrats and one Independent legislator. Sen. Colby Coash (R-Lincoln), said, "If any other system in our government was as ineffective and inefficient as is our death penalty, we conservatives would have gotten rid of it a long, long time ago." Sen. Tommy Garrett (R-Papillion) said he was once a "staunch proponent" of capital punishment, but, "I’ve come to believe that the death penalty is simply not good government.” A Washington Times op-ed by conservative commentator Drew Johnson noted that Nebraska's repeal bill has support from victims' families, the Catholic Bishops of Nebraska, and Nebraska Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. Johnson also pointed to the DNA exonerations of the "Beatrice Six," who gave coerced confessions and pleas after being threatened with the death penalty, as evidence that "government has no business exercising the power to kill its residents, whether in Nebraska or elsewhere." A recent Pew poll showed that support for the death penalty among conservative Republicans had dropped by 7 percentage points since 2011.

NEW VOICES: Effects of the Death Penalty on Those Who Carry It Out

Four retired death-row prison officials - two wardens, a chaplain, and an execution supervisor - recently described the effect that carrying out executions has had on them. Frank Thompson (pictured), who served as a warden in Oregon and Arkansas, said he believed in capital punishment until he thought "about those flaws in the back of my mind that I knew existed with capital punishment. It’s being administered against the poor; it lacks proof that it deters anything." He trained his staff to carry out executions, but, "I realized that I was training decent men and women how to take the life of a human being. In the name of a public policy that after all these years couldn’t be shown to increase the net of public safety." Terry Collins spent over 32 years working in corrections, including time as the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He said seeing exonerations gave him concerns about the death penalty: "[T]the system does make mistakes. I don’t think you can make a mistake when you’re talking about somebody’s life." Jerry Givens, who oversaw 62 executions in Virginia, raised similar concerns, "I knew the system was corrupted when we exonerated Earl Washington Jr. from death row...You have two types of people on death row. The guilty and the innocent. And when when you have the guilty and the innocent, you shouldn’t have death row." Rev. Carroll Pickett was a chaplain on Texas's death row for 15 years and during 95 executions. He commented, "Standing by the gurney almost 100 times, and watching innocent men killed, watching repentant men killed, and seeing the pain among families and men and my employee friends, cannot leave my memories."

Pages