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Conservatives Lead Nebraska Death Penalty Repeal, Will Other States Follow?

Nebraska state Senator Brett Lindstrom

On this past Wednesday 30 members of Nebraska's unicameral legislature voted to override Governor Pete Ricketts' veto and repeal the death penalty in the state of Nebraska.

The final vote, which took place in the face of fierce resistance from Governor Ricketts, who argued that repeal “sends the message to criminals that Nebraska will be soft on crime,” was no sure thing.  The original bill had 32 senators voting to end the death penalty and the governor did all he could to flip three votes and keep the law as it stood, but in the end he could only change two minds and his veto was overridden.

The American Spectator summed-up the impact of a conservative state like Nebraska repealing the death penalty through a majority of Republicans overriding a Republican governor’s veto this way:

So in 2015, when a state as “red” as Nebraska, on the strength of conservative Republicans overriding a Republican governor, ends the death penalty, a modest wave through the remaining 31 death penalty states — including many conservative states — is easy to foresee.

And death penalty repeal efforts, led by conservatives, are underway in a number of states. As the American Spectator’s Ross Kaminsky points out, “In February, the Montana state House came one vote from passing a bill to repeal that state’s death penalty. Also with Republican support, Kansas continues its conversation about doing the same, not having executed anyone in that state for fifty years.”

In understanding how conservatives have come to form a substantial, perhaps leading, segment of the anti-death penalty movement the journey of Nebraska state Senator Brett Lindstrom is instructive.

As Omaha.com’s Matthew Hansen describes him, “Lindstrom is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, a 21st-century Reaganite, a reliable conservative,” and also one of the 30 votes cast to override Governor Ricketts veto of the death penalty repeal.

Hansen says there’s much confusion in Nebraska and around the country today about how the Legislature, a conservative statehouse in a deep-red state, could possibly repeal the death penalty — something long viewed as a cause of the peace-loving left.

But it becomes less shocking when you sit on a window ledge with Brett Lindstrom, and he walks you from where he started to where he ended up.

Not so long ago, Lindstrom told Hansen, his stance was simple: An eye for an eye. These are murderers, his thinking went, the absolute worst of the worst. Of course they should die.

That’s what his mom thought. That’s what his dad thought. That’s what a whole lot of his friends thought. And that’s what Brett thought, too.

Until he got elected to the legislature and realized the death penalty issue would come up and he started studying the issue.

What he found muddied his black-and-white view, turning it every last shade of gray reports Hansen.

The news from around the country was unsettling: A botched execution in Oklahoma. Studies that show death penalty inmates cost many states a staggering amount of money. The fact that more than 150 death row inmates have been released after DNA or other evidence proved their innocence.

How many Americans, Lindstrom wondered, had been put to death before new evidence could prove their innocence, too?

He looked at what religion says about the death penalty and got conflicting answers and finally he circled back to his own political philosophy, his own bedrock beliefs. Does being truly conservative mean you have to support the death penalty? Or does fighting against big government mean you can take a stand against government-mandated executions?

Isn’t a state killing a citizen the ultimate big-government act?

In the end Brett Lindstrom voted to override the Governor’s veto and end the death penalty in Nebraska despite the not-so-veiled threats that he and other Republicans are endangering their political careers if they vote for repeal.

To learn more about the role conservatives played in the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska please see Matthew Hansen's "One Nebraska state senator’s long, hard journey from death penalty backer to execution opponent" in Omaha.com and Ross Kaminsky's "NEBRASKA REPEALS THE DEATH PENALTY" in The American Spectator.

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