Last March, testimony in support of a legislative bill (LB 543) that would end the death penalty in Nebraska was presented on behalf of Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln and Bishop William Dendinger of Grand Island by the Executive Director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference at a public hearing.
This testimony renewed the Nebraska Catholic Conference’s support for replacing the death penalty with imprisonment for life without possibility of parole as the maximum penalty for aggravated first-degree murder under Nebraska law. Similar testimony from the Conference was presented on repeal bills in several prior years.
The bishops urged the eight members of the Unicameral Legislature’s Judiciary Committee to embrace Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, “The Gospel of Life,” with respect to its articulated test for considering the death penalty as a matter of public policy: “Is the death penalty … absolutely necessary? That is, are there absolutely no other means by which to defend society from an unjust aggressor?” The testimony provided this response: “The Nebraska Catholic Conference urges you as legislators to consider LB 543 within this framework. We think the correct and proper response to the test of whether or not the death penalty is absolutely necessary is unambiguously no, of course not. The death penalty fails the test. In this modern era, this technologically sophisticated age … [t]he conditions necessary to justify using the means of last resort do not exist. What’s more, in this culture, which too frequently resorts to death and violence as a response to social problems, including the killing of millions of innocent human beings through abortion, using the death penalty when there is no absolute necessity of doing so diminishes society even more and contributes to the growing disrespect for the dignity and value of every human life.”
In addition to the public hearing, the NCC’s testimony was published on its website and publicized in the three diocesan newspapers. After LB 543 was advanced to the full Unicameral on a 7-0 vote by the Judiciary Committee, the testimony was communicated to each of the 49 legislators. Pastors in key legislative districts were urged to lead parishioners in contacting their legislators.
During consideration by the full Legislature, opponents of the repeal bill subjected it to a filibuster. A motion to invoke cloture, needing 33 affirmative votes from among the 49 legislators, failed on a tally of 28-21. In the absence of a filibuster, 25 votes would have advanced the bill. It now carries over to the 2014 legislative session. Additional floor debate and another vote, while unlikely, might occur.
The Nebraskan bishops and the Nebraska Catholic Conference continue to work to replace the death penalty. For more information contact them by e-mail.
This article was first featured in the November 2013 CMN Newsletter.