By Sen. Colby Coash
Twenty years ago, as a college freshman, I attended an execution. I celebrated. I stood outside the prison, drank beer with other death penalty enthusiasts, and thought that justice had been served.
Since then, I’ve become a conservative state senator in Nebraska. I am pro life, I believe in limited government, and I know that many expensive government programs fail to achieve their goals. I have learned how the death penalty violates conservative principles I hold dear. If I had known what I know now, about how the death penalty really affects states, I would not have been able to celebrate.
In Nebraska we have wrongly convicted six people for a murder after they were threatened with the death penalty and confessed to crimes they did not commit. In another case, a top crime scene investigator planted blood evidence from a murder victim in the car of two men in an attempt to make a case against them. DNA is only available in a limited number of cases. Conservatives know that government is imperfect and makes mistakes. My desire to protect innocent life leads me to worry about a fallible system that has the power to take a life.
No executions are scheduled in Nebraska because we currently have no lethal injection drugs and no legal access to any. It’s been a tremendous amount of resources for nearly no results. Even with an increasingly conservative legislative body, Nebraska has been unable to speed up or even assure an execution. While they fight to assure the death penalty exists, they are unable to put it into action. As I stated on the floor or the Legislature: “If this (the death penalty) were any other government program, we would have got rid of it a long time ago.”
While we debate exacting justice on the perpetrator, we have lost sight of the victims of these crimes.
I learned about the harmful impact of this policy when I heard the testimony of Miriam Thimm Kelle of Beatrice, whose brother James was brutally murdered by Michael Ryan who was sentenced to death in 1985. Miriam told the Nebraska Judiciary Committee, “Our sentence has been going on for over 25 years and there’s been no execution. It’s been about (the perpetrator) and the legislative process,” and not about her brother, Kelle said. How is waiting this long “justice”? I don’t see how a sentence that is never carried out can be considered as such.
Taxpayers just keep picking up the costs of this failed program. It is estimated that Nebraska has spent at least 45 million dollars for its three executions. Former Nebraska Solicitor General J. Kirk Brown called the cost of the state’ death penalty “staggering.” Richardson County nearly went bankrupt and had to borrow money and mortgage its ambulances to pay legal expenses for the two death penalty cases it prosecuted. The death penalty is more expensive than a life sentence without the possibility of release due to the exorbitant trial costs, the many appeals, and the costs of maintaining a death row.
I have learned that Nebraska’s experience with the death penalty is no different than so many states. Conservatives in Kansas, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Kentucky, North Carolina,Tennessee, Florida and New Hampshire are publicly sharing similar concerns. We conservatives are the best at naming and ending failed government programs. It’s time to add the death penalty to that list.
Because we cannot carry out the death penalty, the laws on our books continue to cost us money. The current statute has been relegated to obsolete language that references a sentence that we cannot carry out. Any other language would have been “cleaned up” years ago. I am hoping the time has come to clean up our books.
Colby Coash is a state senator from Lincoln representing Legislative District 27 in the Nebraska State Legislature.