By Tom Venzor
In a historic moment on May 27, 2015, the Nebraska Legislature eliminated the death penalty after a 30-19 vote to override the governor’s veto. Over a year later in November 2016, after extensive public debate, Nebraska voters overwhelmingly supported the “repeal of the repeal”—or, in other words, the reinstatement of the death penalty.
Since the reinstatement, countless events surrounding the death penalty have taken place in our state and globally for the Church.
Shortly after reinstatement, it was announced that death penalty drugs would be sought, in order to carry out an execution. This was followed by a seemingly endless bout of litigation surrounding numerous legal aspects of the death penalty.
Pope Francis announced revisions to one of the key paragraphs of Catechism of the Catholic Church relating to the death penalty. This was followed by extensive debate and commentary by Catholic thinkers and theologians, probing the meaning and scope of the revision.
Various pieces of legislation were introduced, pertaining to issues such as confidentiality of the lethal injection drug procurement process, the creation of a death penalty standards commission, and requiring the presence of certain witnesses throughout an execution.
In addition to these legislative proposals, the 2017 legislative session brought with it the re-introduction of Sen. Ernie Chambers’ effort to eliminate the death penalty. Like all other introduced bills, it received a committee hearing. And like so many other introduced bills, it went no further than a public hearing.
Arguably, the Judiciary Committee at the time had the votes to advance the legislation to General File for debate by the entire Legislature. But this was likely intentionally avoided. After all, it had been mere months before that the people of Nebraska had clearly spoken—through their vote—about their desire to reinstate the death penalty.
Not least of all, by any means, on a rainy August day in 2018, the State of Nebraska executed Carey Dean Moore. Moore was Nebraska’s first execution in 21 years. And he had sat on death row for 38 years, without seemingly posing any threat to public safety himself.
In short, the last several years have been all but quiet regarding the death penalty.
And now, for the first time since 2015, the entire Nebraska Legislature will soon revisit the elimination of the death penalty.
Sen. Ernie Chambers, as usual, introduced a legislative bill (LB44) to eliminate the death penalty and replace all capital punishment crimes with life imprisonment without parole.
LB44 advanced from the Judiciary Committee on March 18 on a 5-2 vote. Supporting the measure were Senators Steve Lathrop, Adam Morfeld, Patty Pansing Brooks, Justin Wayne, and Chambers. Opposing were Senators Julie Slama and Tom Brandt. Absent was Senator Wendy DeBoer.
With his days once again waning in the Nebraska Legislature due to term limits, Sen. Chambers designated LB44 as his personal priority, giving him one last opportunity to drive home his core message: Nebraska does not need the death penalty.
As we have for over the last 20 years, the Nebraska Catholic Conference voiced its support for the elimination of the death penalty and will continue to engage in public education and lobbying efforts to that end.
Like Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis, the Bishops of Nebraska have wrestled with key questions posed by Catholic social teaching: Is the death penalty absolutely necessary for the protection of public safety? Are there no other means by which to defend society from an unjust aggressor?
Like these great popes, the bishops have also unequivocally recognized that in our modern and technologically sophisticated age, there exists other means of just punishment that adequately ensure the public safety—means that do not resort to execution.
As the Nebraska Legislature assesses, once again, the policy merits of eliminating the death penalty, each of us as Catholics must grapple with the questions and teaching proposed by our social teaching over the course of the last several decades. All of this, of course, is to be taken in conjunction with the Church’s traditional teaching that the death penalty is not intrinsically immoral, that the state may have recourse to its use, and that this teaching is rooted in both natural reason and Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
As is clear, the task ahead is not an easy one—and demands the continued critical consideration that Nebraskans have been giving this issue at least for the past several years. In the meanwhile, join us in praying for an end to the need and use for the death penalty—and let your Senator know that you support LB44.