Friday, May 29, 2015

How America’s Death Penalty Ends

The decision Wednesday by the state of Nebraska to abolish the death penalty suggests that what seemed unimaginable as recently as a decade ago—namely that the United States would join most of the rest of the world in abolishing capital punishment—now seems well within the horizon of possibility.
The surprise move by the Nebraska legislature—overriding a gubernatorial veto with a bipartisan and sweeping 30-to-19 vote—galvanized and focused public’s attention on America’s death penalty for the second time in just a month. On May 17, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death. That headline though, as dramatic as it was, tells us little about the future of capital punishment in the United States; Tsarnaev’s case reminds us that even in liberal Massachusetts jurors can be persuaded that death is an appropriate punishment for an unusually gruesome crime and a particularly unsympathetic defendant whose guilt was never in doubt. Yet it should not distract us from a clear headed appraisal of the present condition and likely future of America’s death penalty.
Nebraska’s decision, though, represents a true milestone on the road to abolition of the death penalty—a sweeping reversal of the 1990s tough-on-crime era that saw governors almost bragging about the number of death warrants they signed. The factors that led to abolition in staunchly conservative Nebraska are the very same factors now finding receptive audiences across the country: Put simply, conversation about capital punishment today is less about those we seek to punish and more about the damage the death penalty does to some our nation’s most cherished values, to our beliefs in due process and equal treatment and to our commitment to insuring that no innocent person pays with his life for a crime he did not commit.

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