"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Will Nebraska's Death Penalty Come Back?

Gathering signatures against the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska
Gathering signatures against the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska
In a sensible, humane move last month, Nebraska lawmakers abolished the state's death penalty by a 30-to-19 vote that crossed party lines and overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. These lawmakers aren't renegades; an April poll by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska found that 58 % of Nebraskans supported alternatives to the death penalty, like life without parole.

Now comes the counterattack.

A new group called Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has started a petition drive, supported by Mr. Ricketts, to put the issue directly before voters in 2016. Last week, they got the support of the Nebraska Sheriffs' Association, which claimed, as Mr. Ricketts has, that public safety depends on the state's ability to kill certain inmates.

To put the proposed referendum on the ballot, death penalty supporters have about 3 months to get signatures from 5 % of registered voters, or about 58,000 Nebraskans. If they can get 10 percent, state law will put the ban on hold until the voters have a chance to weigh in. Whether the effort succeeds will depend in large part on how much money death penalty supporters can muster; paying people to go door to door asking tens of thousands of voters for their signatures doesn't come cheap.

In addition to supporting the referendum, Mr. Ricketts is insisting that he still has the legal authority to execute the 10 people remaining on Nebraska's death row, on the grounds that the Legislature cannot alter an existing sentence. Lawmakers, however, say they have eliminated all executions. Whatever the courts may decide on this question, it remains unclear whether the state even has the means to carry out these killings.

Like most death penalty states, Nebraska has struggled for years to obtain lethal-injection drugs. In 2011, after European drugmakers refused to sell their drugs for use in killing people, the state tried to sneak them in through a middleman in India. When a Swiss manufacturer found out and demanded the drugs' return, Nebraska said no. In May, Mr. Ricketts said a new batch of drugs had been purchased - again, reportedly, from an Indian supplier, for $54,400, a batch large enough to kill 300 people. But one of those drugs, sodium thiopental, has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and it is illegal to import it into the United States. The agency is under order from the federal appeals court in Washington to seize any new shipments of it. As a lawyer who argued that case put it, if the state wanted to get the drug, it would have to "smuggle it in in someone's backpack."

That sums up the state of the modern death penalty: a shady undertaking that depends on subterfuge and secrecy, lest the American people learn what is really going on.

In contrast, the votes of the Nebraska Legislature show that when lawmakers across the political spectrum can have an open, honest and informed debate on the issue, capital punishment is quickly exposed for the immoral, ineffective, arbitrary and costly practice that it is.

Source: New York Times, Editorial, June 13, 2015

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