We’ve learned a lot about the death penalty since 1973. For three and a half decades, we have tinkered with Nebraska’s death penalty in an effort to make it fair, accurate, and effective. But despite the best intentions of many, we now know the system is broken. For all the time we take to try to repair it, our death penalty will continue to fail the people of Nebraska.
The risk of executing an innocent person is real. Nebraska has sentenced innocent people to life in prison with the threat of the death penalty. The criminal justice system is run by human beings – and we are not perfect 100% of the time. Innocent Nebraskans have been convicted as result of shoddy forensics, coerced confessions, jailhouse snitches, and mistaken witnesses. Despite our best intentions, human beings simply can’t be right 100% of the time. And when a life is on the line, one mistake is one too many.
Fairness in the death penalty is a moving target. We expect justice to be blind. Otherwise it’s not justice at all. Yet poor defendants sentenced to die have been represented by attorneys who were drunk, asleep, or completely inexperienced. Geography and race often determine who lives and dies, and after 35 years we have not found a way to make the system less arbitrary. Tinkering with the system will only make it more complex – not more fair.
The long and complicated process has clogged our courts. The death penalty is more complicated because a life is on the line. For this reason, every state cost study ever done has found that the death penalty costs millions more than a system of life without parole. In Nebraska, death penalty cases have lasted for 15, 20, and even more than 25 years, often only to be reversed to life without parole. The time spent pursuing one capital case could solve and prosecute scores of other non-capital cases.
The death penalty has failed victims’ families. The longer process prolongs the pain of victims’ families, who must relive their trauma as courts repeat trials and hearings in an effort to get it right. Most cases result in a life sentence in the end anyway – but only after the families have learned the hard way, waiting years or decades for an execution that never comes.
Today, we can lock people away for life. Nebraska did not offer the alternative of life without parole when the death penalty was reinstated in 1973, but now we have that option. It is a severe punishment that keeps defendants behind bars until they die. To be meaningful, justice must be both swift and sure. The death penalty has turned out to be neither.
Nebraskans are ready. The mounting evidence of waste, inaccuracy, and bias has shattered public confidence in the criminal justice system. Death sentences are at an all-time low and public support for the death penalty has dropped in favor of life without parole. Across the country, states are reconsidering their death penalty statutes. The death penalty is dying. Americans are ready to see it go.