o-DeathPenalty

The death penalty is a barbaric vestige of a cruel past and has no place in modern society; we should abolish it once and for all. In the past decade the battle over the death penalty in Nebraska has been something of a confusing roller coaster. One constant in the whole affair has been Gov. Pete Ricketts’ seemingly obsessive desire to maintain and expand the death penalty. 

Across the country, the movement to curtail the death penalty has been going on for nearly 200 years in fits and starts. Over the course of the 20th century alone the death penalty fell in and out of public favor several times.

Back in 2015, a coalition of consistently pro-life conservative and liberal state senators cobbled together enough support to pass a veto-proof bill to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska. Rather than cut his losses, then-newly-elected Gov. Ricketts decided to personally champion the concept that the government should be able to kill people. 

As a person with too much money, Ricketts helped to personally finance a ballot drive to repeal the repeal of the death penalty. In 2016, Nebraskans made the wrong decision when 60% of voters sided with the governor’s agenda of state-sponsored murder. 

Just prior to the temporary repeal of the death penalty, Gov. Ricketts announced he had found a supplier of lethal injection drugs, something the state had been having trouble finding since at least 2013. Who these drugs were bought from was something of a mystery as the German company who makes them, Fresenius Kabi, does not sell those drugs to prisons and requires that distributors they work with similarly refrain from selling to prisons. Fresenius Kabi attempted to sue the state of Nebraska to prevent the use of their drugs in an execution but a federal judge sided with the state. In July of 2020, nearly two full years after the execution with these drugs, it was revealed that the drugs had originally come from Fresenius Kabi but were directly supplied by a Nebraska based pharmacy contracted with the state’s prison system.

Maybe this weirdly pro-killing stance from our governor doesn’t bother you. Perhaps you just haven’t heard a good argument against the death penalty. It could be that you just haven’t made up your mind yet, that's fine. In any case, allow me to toss a few arguments your way.

There is no way to guarantee that an execution does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause. You can sedate a person, sure, but there is no way to guarantee that they do not feel pain, or that the sedation is even fully effective. Amongst lethal injection executions in the U.S. more than 7% of executions are botched, the highest rate of any method used. A botched execution is when there is a breakdown or departure from established protocols for the method of execution. A likely part of why the botched rate of lethal injections is the highest is because they are generally not performed by medical professionals, due to execution being generally considered a violation of medical ethics.

In 2018, Nebraska executed a person for the first time since 1997. This was the first execution carried out in the state to use lethal injection — the previous execution made use of the electric chair. The cocktail of drugs used included the synthetic opioid fentanyl — a major cause of the opioid crisis. It should be noted that fentanyl is illegal, and its use hardly seems in line with the governor’s harsh stance against drugs.

Furthermore, the possibility that even one innocent person gets executed is, to me, too high. It’s estimated that at least 4% of death row inmates are innocent. When I hear someone say they’re pro-death penalty, what I also hear is, “some amount of innocent people executed is an acceptable loss.” Because humans are not omnipotent, there will always be some innocent people convicted of crimes. With prison, the innocent can be released and compensated for a miscarriage of justice, but you can’t compensate the dead. 

The death penalty serves absolutely no deterrant purpose, contrary to the pro-death penalty camp’s commonly held notion. The whole deterrence argument displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how you decrease crime. If the prison recidivism rate in America proves anything, it's that punishment isn’t working. Rather than punishing the people who do crime, we should be looking at and addressing the causes of crime, most often poverty.

For those who argue that the death penalty needs to be maintained for those who deserve it, I would argue that the only people who truly deserve it were those who participated in ethnic cleansing like the Nazis. The Nazi regime committed some of the most atrocious crimes in human history; to my mind the only suitable punishment for the industrial slaughter of millions of innocent people is death. The key difference between the men hanged at Nuremberg and the people more commonly executed in the United States is that the people the U.S. kills have not committed historic crimes against humanity

The governor is not pro-life; if he was, he would oppose the death penalty. Instead, he is one of its most enthusiastic cheerleaders. Pete Ricketts is in fact pro-death. He could have simply accepted that he no longer held absolute power over the life and death of those on death row, but instead he decided to pour time and money into dragging Nebraska backwards in history. 

Nebraskans must start a new ballot initiative to undo the mistake of 2016 — that isn’t who we are. Nebraskans in my experience have been nothing but kind and decent people, and maintaining the death penalty is at odds with that.

Nick Finan is a junior political science major. Reach him at nickfinan@dailynebraskan.com.