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Running Scared in Nebraska: Death Penalty Loving State Senators Hide Behind a Filibuster

Amy Miller,
ACLU of Nebraska
Tyler Richard,
ACLU of Nebraska
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May 20, 2013

This week in Nebraska, a handful of senators – four in particular – used filibusters and frivolous amendments to stall a full debate on whether Nebraska is done with capital punishment. Why are these foes of justice running scared? Why were they afraid of having a real vote on the death penalty?

You. That’s why. Popular support for the death penalty has waned with each passing year as more people learn the true facts about the criminal justice system’s errors and prejudices. Look at the recent end of capital punishment in Maryland, Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey and New York. These senators know that a growing number of Nebraskans are done with our state’s broken death penalty system.

Just a couple of years ago, we came within one vote of ending the death penalty in Nebraska. This year, we might have had the votes to end the death penalty once and for all, but these Senators’ procedural gamesmanship stopped Nebraska from having a meaningful vote. Their poor-spirited abuses of the rules were disappointing – but this important vote was also thwarted by the outright misinformation on full display on the floor.

Senator Mark Christensen, for example, claimed he would have changed his mind based on his Christianity except he was never offered a single word of Scripture to argue against the death penalty. Yet we know our supporters and members gave many, many pages of Scriptural authority to him and he simply chose to ignore it.

Senator Scott Lautenbaugh and others claimed the death penalty was being reserved for the worst of the worst. Yet we proved that many offenders are serving life sentences or a term of years, and the death penalty is only offered to a tiny percentage of all those guilty of murder. The crimes don’t warrant the difference in penalties – a sign of a broken system.

But misinformation and frivolous amendments cannot keep the death penalty in place forever. Increasingly, the call to rid Nebraska of this broken system is being echoed from the conservative side of the aisle as well. State senators who may have no moral objection to capital punishment are coming to our aid because they recognize that as a government program, it is an utter failure. It’s expensive, it makes mistakes, and it brings no benefit back to voters—this is a government program that cries out for a fiscal conservative senator’s axe to trim the fat.

This time, a few clinging to old ways blocked a full debate on this important issue. But the writing is on the wall: Nebraska is inevitably going to replace the death penalty with life without parole. It didn’t happen this year, but we will be there fighting until it does.

While waiting for that victory, hum your favorite tune to keep up your spirits, because our “loss” this week was just a hair’s breadth from a win. You’ll want that favorite tune ready for your victory soundtrack just around the corner.

Make sure Senators in Nebraska know that you want a real vote on the death penalty. If you think repeal of capital punishment deserves a real vote and shouldn’t be blocked by political games, email your Senator!

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