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Why More States Should (Finally) Ban the Death Penalty

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Why More States Should (Finally) Ban the Death Penalty


Most of the civilized world has come to regard killing someone held in captivity as barbaric. The death penalty has been abolished in the European Union and 19 U.S. states. Governors in four states that do permit capital punishment — Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington — have imposed a moratorium on executions.

The rest of America is getting there. For the first time in almost 50 years, less than half the public supports the death penalty, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Even states that still put inmates to death seem to be losing the stomach for it. The United States is set to carry out fewer executions this year than it has since the early ’90s.

This November, voters in two very different places, Nebraska and California, will have an opportunity to remove state-sanctioned killing from their books. (Going the other way, a referendum in Oklahoma calls for amending the state constitution to protect the use of the death penalty.)

The most heated battle over the death penalty has taken place in Nebraska. It’s also the most significant one, for it shows how conflicted even conservative Americans have become over the practice. In fact, Nebraska hasn’t performed an execution in nearly 20 years. Conservatives in red states such as Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, Wyoming and South Dakota, meanwhile, have sponsored bills to end the death penalty.

In Nebraska, lawmakers from both parties voted last year to eliminate the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life in prison for first-degree murder. Nebraska’s pro-capital punishment governor, Pete Ricketts, vetoed the bill. The legislature overturned the veto.

Ricketts then pushed a successful petition drive to put the matter on the ballot. Nebraskans will vote on whether to accept the legislature’s decision to strike the death penalty and instead require life without parole.

The outcome is hard to predict. “In certain issues, particularly with a populist strain, Nebraska is not nearly as doctrinaire conservative as people might think,” Paul Landow, professor of political science at the University of Nebraska Omaha, told me.

Ernie Chambers, a progressive from Omaha and the longest-serving state senator in Nebraska history, has introduced a measure to repeal the death penalty 37 times. “That kind of persistence has left an indelible mark on the issue,” Landow noted.

In California, a ballot measure to end the death penalty failed four years ago. This time, there are two referendums that seem at odds with each other. One would abolish the death penalty. The other would speed up the appeals process and thus hasten executions.

The case against the death penalty is well-known by now. Capital punishment exposes a state to the moral horror of killing an innocent person. Over the past 40 years, some 156 people on death row have been exonerated, many with the help of DNA evidence.

Citing church doctrine on the sanctity of life, the Nebraska Catholic Conference is urging voters to retain the repeal of the death penalty. One who opposes abortion on “pro-life” grounds, its argument goes, must also oppose the death penalty.

There’s little evidence that the death penalty deters murder. That leaves the questionable value of retribution — that erasing the monster who committed a heinous crime will bring comfort to the victims’ loved ones.

More and more survivors are countering this line of reasoning. Despite having suffered immeasurably, they hold that executing the criminal would just add to the toll. The state would somehow be justifying the crime of murder by committing it.

The movement away from capital punishment is clearly gathering force. This is one good direction in which our history is moving.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

FILE PHOTO: Protesters calling for an end to the death penalty unfurl a banner before police arrest them outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington January 17, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop’s nationally syndicated column appears in over 150 newspapers. Media Matters ranks her column 20th nationally in total readership and 14th in large newspaper concentration. Harrop has been a guest on PBS, MSNBC, Fox News and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and is a frequent voice on NPR and talk radio stations in every time zone as well.

A Loeb Award finalist for economic commentary in 2004 and again in 2011, Harrop was also a Scripps Howard Award finalist for commentary in 2010. She has been honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and the New England Associated Press News Executives Association has given her five awards.

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  1. Dominick Vila October 4, 2016

    The United States, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, are the only industrialized nations that still practice the death penalty, along with most Islamic countries, and a few countries with dictatorial forms of government. The rest of the world, including all EU countries, Australia, Canada, and most Latin American countries, abolished that inhumane practice decades ago.

    That is one of many reasons why we must prevent Trump from nominating radical Justices to the Supreme Court.

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  2. FireBaron October 4, 2016

    My problems with the death penalty are varied.
    First, each state is allowed a separate standard of what crimes constitute a Death penalty.
    Second, prosecution of Death Penalty cases varies within a state. Some prosecutors will seek that for some accused and not for others. Sorry, but if a crime constitutes a death penalty, it should be equally sought in all cases.
    Third, how we do it. Nobody gets to watch an execution. To me this is both good and bad. It’s good in that we don’t have to expose ourselves to the barbarity of the punishment. It’s bad in that people do not get to see what could happen should they chose to commit an offense that could warrant Death. Once they see just how horrible the punishment is, it could act as a deterrent.
    Fourth, how long it takes. Many people on “Death Row” are there longer waiting for all of their appeals to expire than are individuals receiving 20 to Life! First thing that needs to happen upon sentencing is the case needs to immediately go to an appeals desk that reviews the entirety of the case to ensure there were no procedural errors that could negate the conviction and sentencing. If found, the case is immediately remanded to a different court for action. This means you don’t have people spending 20 years reviewing every line of testimony and every piece of evidence to see where a fault could exist. Now a normal appeal process based on the merits of the circumstances can occur.
    Finally, the method. We need to establish a method that allows for a quick execution. Lethal injection just doesn’t work. Gas Chamber and Electrocution are painful not only for the sentenced, but for those assigned to watch. Beheading, firing squad and hanging are pretty much what’s left, unless you want to go back to drawing and quartering, drowning, crushing or burning at the stake.
    Simply put, it’s a barbaric practice that should be ended.

    1. Jon October 4, 2016

      Of all of the justifications for having the death penalty, the only one that has always proven to be true is specific deterrence. Once the state has killed the person, that person will never commit another crime. As you noted two people can commit the same capital crime but which one faces the death penalty depends on factors such as which state the crime was committed in as well as prosecutorial discretion in deciding whether or not to seek the death penalty for those eligible for it.
      General deterrence has never been shown to be true. Perhaps as you suggest if we had public executions and people could see what would happen to them if they committed a capital crime it might deter some individuals from committing one but that is speculative.
      Those states that have it must not be in a hurry to execute people sentenced to death. As the article mentions mistakes are made and juries sometimes find innocent people guilty. Sometimes DNA testing, witnesses recanting their testimony many years after trial, new witnesses coming forward or being discovered many years after the trial, finding that a key witness committed perjury, and uncovering law enforcement and/or prosecutorial misconduct resulting in an unfair trial and wrongful conviction, and mistakes made by crime labs may take many years to discover. It is never worth executing one innocent person because the state is in a hurry to reduce the population living on death row.
      As you say, we must end the practice.

  3. I of John October 4, 2016

    Our use of the death penalty is riddled with errors and inconsistencies. Where as I do agree that a few people, who prove to be a danger to everyone as long as they live, should be dealt with permanently. (Osama Bin Laden) Our system isn’t fair. It’s toxically slow and filled with abuse. We MUST be absolutely certain with our decisions. As we have seen in the past, we are have made errors. When such errors are made, it is We The People who are guilty.

  4. browninghipower October 4, 2016

    Well, here in New Mexico, home of the worst public school system in the country, and the worst level of child poverty, and the most corrupt governor, the legislature is in a special session in order to reinstate the death penalty…and of course cut more taxes for corporations. Governor Clown Cow is a republican, of course.

  5. Will Owen October 4, 2016

    Speaking as one who believes firmly that dead is dead, period, I am against capital punishment because it’s not punishment. Punishment is something that a person suffers, but death is the end of suffering. So while the victim’s relatives continue to mourn their loss, the killer is outta here. I say that if it’s punishment you want, lock the jerk up and never let him loose again.


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