how Nebraska is attempting to bring back the death penalty
The other day I went to the DMV to get a Nebraska driver’s license and to register to vote. As I was leaving there were two people standing outside with large clipboards asking people to sign a petition. Usually I try to ignore such people (a skill I picked up while walking past many of the very determined and seemingly indefatigable Greenpeace advocates throughout the streets of Chicago), but this time I was interested in what these two people were trying to get my signature for. They didn’t fit the stereotypical description that I have been used to seeing over the course of the last few years in Chicago. One was a male, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, wearing that classic black Tool t-shirt from Hot Topic and baggy black jeans. If this weren’t Nebraska I would have thought maybe I went to high school with this guy or something. He kind of had that look. The woman that seemed to be with him, and I’m sorry that I can’t think of any better way of putting this, looked like someone from the “after” side of an anti-meth advertisement poster. She was kind of wandering around talking to herself, sometimes deciding to engage with someone leaving the DMV. Those whom she decided to try and talk to did their very best to avoid eye contact while promptly power-walking to their vehicle.
When the guy asked me if I had signed the petition, I asked him what the petition was for.
“Oh, it’s for the death penalty, man. This is to get it on the ballot so the people can vote for it instead of the government doing it for us.”
I hadn’t realized yet that people were petitioning for this.
“Oh. Sorry, I don’t think I can sign that.” I said.
“Oh, ok. Thanks, man.”
The woman simply continued walking in circles, kind of mumbling to herself.
I walked back to my car feeling a bit down that there were petitions for this already. I knew that there was some vocal groups of people against the repeal of the death penalty, but I hadn’t anticipated that there would be people asking me to sign petitions to bring it back. I was elated that Nebraska repealed the death penalty at the end of May, and I was so thankful that Nebraska provided a decent example to other conservative states that yes, Republicans and Democrats can come together on a political issue and pass significant laws.
I knew the governor was strongly against it. He was making national headlines over his energetic support of the death penalty, despite it being repealed. He even made it on a segment of John Oliver’s show, Last Week Tonight. But I didn’t realize that meant there were going to be people standing outside DMVs and standing on street corners trying to get signatures. I’ve even seen people “dancing” with “Support Death Penalty” signs on the street like those Liberty Tax people dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, or like the 16 year old kid who works for Little Caesar’s dancing around with a “$5 Hot and Ready” sign like there’s no tomorrow. Only this time it wasn’t a Statue of Liberty (thank goodness) nor an enthusiastic 16 year old kid at his first job. It was an older (maybe seventy or so), white haired man pointing at cars and directing them to his booth to sign the petition.
This particular scene was at the parking lot of a Target down the street from me here in Omaha. I was a bit shocked by it, honestly. It was above 90 degrees. It was sunny. This is how he wants to spend his day? This is what he puts his energy into? I didn’t get it. And it bothered me a bit.
My gut reaction was to judge them. Why do they want to fight this so hard? What could possibly make them this motivated when there are so many other issues which are focused on saving lives or helping people. There is just so much riding against the death penalty here in the United States that I just don’t understand why people fight for it so hard.
But my judgment was soon dispelled by my genuine sense of curiosity. Why do they fight so hard for this? What makes them set up a tent in the parking lot of Target to try and get signatures? Maybe they have a good reason? Maybe they have even lost a loved one due to a brutal murder or something? Who knows?
[Side note: I have been trying to live into some of the values I hold more consistently. I have values of empathy and of courage and of authenticity and honesty. I am NOT the type of person to engage in a conversation with strangers, especially ones that are politically motivated. But I thought this might be a good example of a time to live into some of the values I hold.]
After thinking about some of these questions, and realizing that it really did no good for me to come up with narratives of my own, I determined that I would take the time to ask them myself. So, after stopping at Target for some things, I drove over to the back of the parking lot to ask a few questions. I was unnecessarily nervous about the encounter, but determined it would be good for me, and perhaps I could learn something. I wasn’t there to persuade them against believing in the death penalty, but rather to learn why they are so motivated to be for it, so much so that they are spending their time in a tent in the parking lot of Target on a hot summer day trying to get people to sign a petition.
When I got out of the car a man came out to meet me, clipboard in hand, and I engaged him with some questions. The man was a guy I’d estimate to be in his mid to late 40s. He was wearing a bright yellow shirt that said, “Support the Death Penalty.”
The following is an abridged version of my conversation. I’ve also edited a bit of the conversation for it to flow better, but I have not taken away whatsoever from the integrity of the conversation:
Me: Hey. I have a few questions about all this. I find this whole thing kind of fascinating and am amazed by how passionate people are about it on both sides of the issue. I am curious as to why you guys specifically are so invested in it — enough to set up a tent and ask people to sign [the petition] and things like that.
Him: Yeah, yeah, I know. There’s Jenkins for instance. [A man who is on death row in Nebraska.] And I think about it, and you know, I think ‘what if that was one of my kids or my family?’ You know? That’s the thing right there. It doesn’t have to be for all of them, but the worst criminals, I believe yes. You know? Because they’re sitting pretty in there. And then they talk about how the injections are expensive and everything. Well, isn’t it an expense to keep them in there for thirty years, or whatever time they have?
Me: Yeah. I think that’s the practical thing, and I think a lot of the Republicans, I was surprised by this, have fallen down on this issue and are against [the death penalty.] It’s the practical side of things. It’s actually a cost benefit. It’s actually more expensive to have [the death penalty] because of all the court appearances and things related to that. Some of these things…
Him: I know. They’re trying to dispersuade you to not, you know…
Me: I know, but do you believe that “life means life”?
[NB: This a phrase used by anti-death penalty advocates. At this point I was holding a flyer that was given to my wife when she left the DMV by a person representing Nebraskans for Public Safety which had bulleted out a number of strong arguments against the death penalty.)
It was also around this time that I realized that I’m not a good interviewer, and I asked too many questions in a row and brought up too many details in a row and should have been more patient. But this is literally the first time I have ever tried anything like this before, so I know how to improve for the next time I try something like this…]
Me: And the victim’s family is dragged into the appeal process over and over again. And what that looks like. Or how [supporting the death penalty] looks like compared to something like the Charleston situation where the families boldly came out and said, ‘I forgive you,’ you know?
Him: I don’t know. I’m kind of both ways. But then again, for the worst criminals, like I said, if it happened to one of my family members I’d probably just shoot them myself, you know? If a kid was molested and killed and everything, what would you do, I mean? You would think about it.
Him: That’s what I’m talking about. So that’s what I, I’m for that. For the worst criminals, you know? So basically, that is what this [petition] is for, I think, because they don’t do it for everybody. It’s the worst criminals. I mean, Jenkins. Look at that dude. So…it’s up to you. All it is, is to get it on the ballot to vote and that’s about all it is. It starts next year, in November or something like that. Get all these signatures on the ballot and we get to vote on it, so…that’s entirely up to you as to what you want to do.
Me: I’ve been curious about this whole thing myself. I moved here from Chicago a few months ago and I’m still getting used to the whole Nebraska political environment. I’m trying to understand better what it is like here.
Him: Oh, ok. So you’re not registered here?
Me: I just went to the DMV a couple days ago and registered to vote.
Him: Ok, it’s up to you.
Me: How did you get involved in this level of it?
Him: Well…I support it, but I’m getting paid too.
Me: Oh, ok.
Him: I was laid off and a temporary service brought me here. But I do support it.
Me: Is it a non-profit supporting this or what is…
Him: I’m not even sure. (A few chuckles.)
Me: Oh, that’s interesting.
Him: I don’t force anyone to do anything. It’s up to whoever wants to sign.
Me: Ok. Well, I appreciate it.
Ok, so that was my conversation. In a way it reminded me of freshman speech class in college because of how nervous I was. And also similar to how I felt after my speeches in college, I looked back and wondered why I was so nervous and why I skipped so much that I had wanted to say. But this was a learning experience for me.
I had played out a few scenarios in my mind as to how it would potentially go, but I hadn’t thought about someone who really didn’t know the arguments for or against very well. When I pulled out the flyer from the anti-death penalty group he sort of rolled his eyes and thought that all the arguments on the flyer were things just being told to me to “dispersuade” me from believing in the argument. (He’s probably right, because I agree with all their points…)
At the same time, he wasn’t really willing to engage in a deeper level beyond how he would feel should a person kill one of his own family members. And I get that. I can respect the empathy of that. But at the same time, that’s about as far as he goes. He implied that if it weren’t for the death penalty he’d want to just shoot the criminal himself. I think a lot of people share that sentiment.
I intentionally brought up the Charleston situation to counter or maybe challenge that sort of thinking, but I didn’t really leave any room for a real response — and I really wish that I had. It was the one point in our short conversation that he said “I’m kind of both ways.” So I guess the “worst criminals” would not include a white-supremacist going to a church and killing nine black church members at a prayer meeting. I assume he has rape or torture in mind when he says the “worst criminals.” But that’s another topic for another day, I suppose. And maybe I shouldn’t assume.
I wasn’t really prepared for someone to be there because they were being paid by a temp agency. He’s just there to get paid, and if he gets a few signatures, great. But he didn’t seem too invested one way or the other. He supports the idea of death penalty, but clearly that’s not what really motivated him to be there.
My goal, like I said before, wasn’t to persuade him, but rather to listen and see what his motivation was for being there on a hot summer day. In the end I found out that it was simply a job, and a way to get some money after being laid off. I get that. I will say that it feels a bit strange that people are paid to get petitions where the end goal is the government using the death penalty to kill our own citizens, even if they are the “worst criminals.”
It was an enlightening conversation, albeit brief and clunky. But I did learn some things and I hope to try something like this again in the future. Being a good interviewer and listener is something I want to improve at. The more I do it, the more I’ll learn.
I think finding out why this person was at least involved at this level gave me a real narrative to work with, rather than making up one of my own. I’m glad I challenged myself to do this and that I was encouraged by a few friends that I brought this idea up to.
I’ve included some details about how the death penalty was eventually repealed here in Nebraska. See below for a sort of timeline of important details that led to Nebraska finally repealing the death penalty.
It may have taken 37 tries over the course of 40 years, but Nebraska on May 27th officially abolished the death penalty, becoming the 19th state to do so, along with Washington D.C.
Here’s the quick rundown of how things went down:
- Despite a last-minute emotional appeal from Governor Pete Ricketts, state lawmakers voted to pass Legislative Bill 268 on May 20, 2015.
- The bill replaced the use of lethal injection with life in prison.
- This repeal effort differed from the many attempts of the past because drew support from a significant number of Republican senators.
- Reasons given for the support of the bill were “the higher costs of carrying out a death sentence versus life in prison. Some said they have come to oppose the death penalty for religious reasons, while others said it’s pointless to keep a punishment on the books that’s rarely implemented.”
- On May 26th, 2015 Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill, sending it back to lawmakers who now had the opportunity to override the veto with a minimum of 30 votes.
- On May 27th, 2015 the legislator overrode Gov. Ricketts’s veto with a vote of 30–19.
- Gov. Ricketts responded: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families. While the Legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue.”
Other relevant info:
- Nebraska hasn’t executed a prisoner since 1997, when the electric chair was used.
- The veto came two days after one of Nebraska’s 11 death-row inmates died in prison of natural causes.
- It does not apply retroactively to the 11 men on Nebraska’s death row. However, it would leave the state with no way to carry out their executions.
- Gov. Ricketts donated $100,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty in an effort to restore Nebraska’s death penalty.
- Between Ricketts and his father, Joe, the founder of TD Ameritrade, the two have given $200,000 of the $243,866 in funds raised by the group.
- “The anti-death penalty coalition, Nebraskans for Public Safety, reported raising $400,000 in cash in one donation from the Proteus Action League, an Amherst, Massachusetts, social justice organization.”
- “Nebraskans for the Death Penalty must collect about 57,500 signatures of registered voters to place a referendum on the November 2016 general election ballot. If it can collect at least 115,000 signatures, the repeal of the death penalty would be put on hold until voters decide the issue.”
- Ricketts has said he may donate more to the referendum drive, which has already been collecting signatures on street corners and parking lots across the state.