By Marc H. Morial
“The reality is that capital punishment in America is a lottery. It is a punishment that is shaped by the constraints of poverty, race, geography and local politics.” – Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative, Founder and Executive Director
The last time the state of Nebraska carried out an execution was December 2, 1997. The inmate, Robert E. Williams, was put to death by electric chair.
In a stunning vote – a vote that may signal a growing, national discontent with capital punishment as a feature of our nation’s criminal justice system – Nebraska recently became the first Republican-led state in more than four decades to abolish the death penalty.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers – the majority of them Republicans – voted to override Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of a bill to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty – a bill that has been introduced in the legislature every session since 1981. For those lawmakers, and for all those in favor of re-examining capital punishment or repealing it all together, the landmark vote was not only a stinging indictment of the practice, but an admission that the system that determines who will or will not be put to state-sponsored death in our nation is fundamentally broken.
While a large majority of Americans continue to support the death penalty, that support has steadily declined to almost historic lows. A recent Gallup poll reported that 56 percent of Americans support the death penalty, this from a high of almost 80 percent in the mid-90s. Meanwhile, opposition to the death penalty has increased from a low of 18 percent of Americans in favor of abolishing the death penalty to 38 percent.
For hundreds of years, outspoken opposition to the death penalty, by a diverse collection of individuals and organizations, has put a spotlight on a method of punishment many feel neither align with their personal values, nor the values of this country. There are many experts who contribute much of today’s sea change in attitudes towards capital punishment to the growing number of conservatives coming to the frontlines of the opposition movement to the death penalty, questioning its efficacy and fiscal soundness.
After Nebraska’s vote, Marc Hyden of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty released a statement saying he was not surprised that conservatives led the death penalty repeal effort in Nebraska and predicted conservative opposition would become more commonplace in the future. He also noted that, for conservatives, the death penalty violated “the core conservative principles of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and valuing life.”
But even more has changed since 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty and the politics of capital punishment began to shift. As of this writing, 153 men and women have been exonerated from America’s death rows. In April of this year, Willie Manning became the 153rd person added to the Death Penalty Information Center’s Innocence List – the charges against him were dismissed after he spent 19 years incarcerated for crimes he did not commit.
When cases are revisited, or defendants are finally given proper representation in court, a different story can sometimes emerge, one that questions our criminal justice system and its ability to judge all Americans in a fair and equitable manner. For far too long, we have been challenged with proof of racial discrimination in arrests and sentencing, and we have also seen DNA evidence prove the innocence of those once deemed guilty. These problems and disparities should give every American reason for pause. No matter where you may stand on the death penalty debate, where is the value in maintaining a system that could likely execute an innocent man or woman?
As long as questions of equity, fairness and fallibility persist, we must stop executions and give death row inmates every chance to prove their innocence.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.