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Nebraska and the Struggle to End the Death Penalty


AP Photo/Nate Jenkins

Ben Jones - published on 06/11/15

Bryan Stevenson's book, "Just Mercy," is a timely reflection on the toll capital punishment takes

Efforts to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty brought State Senator Colby Coash toe-to-toe with Governor Pete Ricketts. Ricketts pulled out all the stops to keep capital punishment in place, including attempting to illegally import lethal injection drugs from India.

As Ricketts worked to drum up death penalty support, Coash steadily and persistently made the case for repeal to small government and pro-life conservatives. Repeal of the death penalty, Coash said, “is consistent with my pro-life views, but it’s also consistent with trying to make government more efficient. If any other programs were as costly or inefficient as this, we would have gotten rid of them.”

A number of commonsense arguments won the day and convinced enough Nebraska legislators to override Ricketts’ veto. They recognized that, with the alternative of incarceration, the death penalty was unnecessary to keep society secure. The death penalty also struck many as wasted effort; Nebraska had not executed anyone since 1997, while continuing to pay for costly capital trials and appeals. Furthermore, the threat of the death penalty resulting in wrongful convictions in Nebraska troubled lawmakers.

Repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska is the latest sign that the days of capital punishment may be numbered in America. Seven states in the last decade have ended the death penalty, death sentences and executions are at historic lows, and states determined to carry out executions find it increasingly impossible to do so as drug companies and pharmacists refuse to provide lethal injection drugs.

The recently released book by Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, provides a timely and thoughtful reflection on the toll exacted by capital punishment and other criminal justice policies.

Stevenson makes his case for criminal justice reform through narratives that recount his work with the Equal Justice Initiative providing legal defense for poor and marginalized people facing harsh sentences. Just Mercy’s central story is the wrongful conviction and eventual exoneration of Walter McMillian.

McMillian’s story sadly is too common. He is one of over one hundred fifty individuals since 1973 who, erroneously sentenced to death, were later exonerated following the emergence of new evidence. In McMillian’s case, a combination of public pressure to solve the murder, ensuing investigative incompetence, and racism put him on death row for the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, an 18-year-old college student.

The murder shocked Monroeville, an Alabama town known for being the birthplace of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Stevenson frequently references this connection, a source of Monroeville’s pride. He is baffled by the incongruity: community pride in a novel about a wrongfully convicted black man and the lack of awareness that what the novel fictionalized was being acted out in public view. McMillian in Monroeville became Mockingbird’s Tom Robinson.
McMillian never should have been charged with murder, let alone sent to death row. At the time of Morrison’s murder, McMillian was at a fish fry, attended by numerous people who vouched for his presence. Pressured to solve the case, investigators ignored the alibi witnesses when a man involved in another murder, Ralph Myers, concocted a story of how he had seen McMillian kill Morrison.

Many details in Myers’ account did not check out—a point that Alabama Bureau of Investigation officials later admitted—but local officials ran with Myers’ testimony to build a case against McMillian. When Myers recanted, officials took the extraordinary step of placing Myers on death row before the trial to instill fear and ensure his testimony against McMillian.

McMillian, who had been in an affair with a white woman, violated long-established sexual taboos. This, in part, explains local officials’ bias and stubborn insistence of his guilt. Sheriff Thomas Tate, who led the shoddy investigation, reportedly told McMillian at his arrest: “We’re going to keep all you niggers from running around with these white girls. I ought to take you off and hang you.” Tate remains county sheriff.

Fortunately for McMillian, Stevenson took the case amidst intimidation from local officials and bomb threats from others. He secured McMillian’s release in 1993 after demonstrating his innocence and that the state had fabricated the case against him.

But as with many exonerations, the victory was far from triumphant. McMillian left death row broken and never regained the independence of his former life. The judicial system that destroyed him remains in place, resistant to reform, and prone to the same mistakes, which it has repeated.

As Stevenson’s book poignantly illustrates, when you dig into the details of capital punishment and how it actually functions, you encounter an institution that is impossible to justify. Nebraska lawmakers recognized this and overrode Governor Ricketts’ veto. It is likely other states in coming years will reach the same conclusion.

Ben Jones is a campaign strategist for Equal Justice USA (EJUSA and works in support of Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a project of EJUSA. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas. 

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