Nebraska just became the 19th state to ditch the death penalty.
A bipartisan contingent of state lawmakers on Wednesday (May 27) narrowly overrode the governor's veto of a bill passed the previous week to repeal the state's longstanding death penalty. Nebraska joins 18 other states, and Washington D.C., in banning capital punishment. It is, however, the first conservative state to do so in more than 40 years, following North Dakota's repeal in 1973.
Nebraska's legislation, known as LB268, takes effect in 90 days, replacing lethal injection with a maximum punishment of life in prison. The law is retroactive, which means the sentences of the 11 inmates currently on the state's death row will be commuted to life without parole.
In defending the law, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced concerns that the death penalty -- which the state last implemented 1997 -- had proven too costly and was morally objectionable.
Among western democracies, the U.S. stands alone in its continued use of capital punishment. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court ended a brief moratorium of the practice, roughly 1400 inmates have been executed at the hands of the state. A large portion of these have happened in Texas, which has executed 525 inmates in the last four decades.
The death penalty is legal in 31 states, including California, where a 2012 voter initiative to abolish it was narrowly defeated. 17 states have had executions in the last five years. However, executions have been idled in a growing number of states with large death row populations, including California and Pennsylvania, due to ongoing appeals and other legal constraints.
The practice also remains legal in the federal justice system, as evidenced by the recent death sentence of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But he now joins more than 60 other death row inmates in a federal system that has conducted only three executions in the last half century.
But a series of factors, including recent high-profile botched executions, lethal injection drug shortages, last minute exonerations, evidence of racial discrimination in sentencing, huge legal costs and dropping crime rates have all contributed to a growing uneasiness with capital punishment among both liberals and a growing number of conservatives.
Although a solid majority of Americans still believe that convicted murderers should be executed, support has waned considerably in the last few decades, according to recent polls. Of the 19 states (and Washington D.C.) that have abolished the death penalty, six have done so in the last seven years.
For more on death penalty history and debate: ProCon.org