|Republican Sen. Colby Coash, of Lincoln, Neb., speaks with Bishop David Choby at the Catholic Pastoral Center on Wed., Jan. 27. Coash, a lifelong Catholic, told the bishop that Nebraska’s three Catholic bishops raised an important voice for all life in Nebraska last year, which helped build public support to abolish the death penalty in that state. Coash has worked with groups in several states to help them make the conservative case against capital punishment. Photo by Rick Musacchio
Colby Coash, a Republican state senator from Nebraska, and a lifelong Catholic, traveled to Tennessee last week to make the conservative case against the death penalty. His message, which is breathing new life into the national conversation about capital punishment, asserts that the death penalty is no longer a cause that jibes with Republican values. “This is broken government at its worst,” he said.
“You can support a repeal of the death penalty because you are a conservative, not in spite of being a conservative,” said Coash, who led the effort to outlaw capital punishment in Nebraska, making it the first state with a Republican controlled legislature to do so in 40 years.
Coash, who was invited to Nashville by Tennessee Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, spent two days visiting with Tennessee legislators, explaining how Nebraska’s conservative legislature voted down the death penalty.
“I think I’ve seen some proverbial light bulbs go off,” Coash said, when he spoke about the conservative rationale behind his state’s abolition of the death penalty. “What we did in Nebraska is opening their eyes.”
‘Which side are you on?’
Coash’s eyes were opened in 1994, the night that Nebraska was set to execute a man for the first time since 1976, the year the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after ruling it unconstitutional several years before.
Coash and some college buddies drove to the Nebraska State Penitentiary the night of Sept. 3, 1994, to cheer on the execution of Harold Otey, who was scheduled to die in the electric chair within a matter of hours.
“Which side are you on?” a prison security guard asked Coash as they pulled through the gates. “For,” he answered.
With that, Coash and his friends were directed to an area where a group of revelers were playing music, tailgating, and counting down the minutes to the execution like they were waiting for the ball to drop on New Year’s Eve. “It was a real party atmosphere, and it was a really ugly scene,” Coash says, reminiscing about that night some two decades later.
On the other side, he said, where those opposed to the execution were stationed, “people were praying and holding candles, bearing a quiet witness to life.”
Later that night, Coash decided that’s the side he wanted to be on – the side of life. “Celebrating a person’s death at the hands of the state felt terribly wrong,” he said.
‘The perfect storm’
Fast forward to 2015, and Coash, then serving his seventh year in the state legislature, felt it was the right time to move on a death penalty abolition bill. A new crop of Nebraska state legislators, who seemed pragmatic and open-minded, had just been elected, and “we had the perfect storm” to push it through, Coash said.
He worked hard to convince fellow conservatives and faith-based state senators to join with him in voting for repeal. He knew traditional liberal arguments against the death penalty were not resonating with conservatives, so he tried a different tack. “If you want to repeal the death penalty in a Republican-led state, you have to get conservative support,” Coash said, and that meant painting the death penalty as inefficient, fiscally irresponsible government overreach.
He also tried to appeal to conservative legislators’ pro-life sensibilities, but it was sometimes difficult to convince his fellow legislators to see the issue from the “seamless garment” perspective of the Catholic Church. “Some pro-life supporters were some of my fiercest opponents” on the death penalty repeal effort, Coash said.
Still, he pressed on with the message that, “it’s not the state’s role to take a life. … My faith teaches me that until someone’s last breath, there’s hope for them, and I have to believe that.”
As Nebraska state lawmakers aggressively debated whether to repeal the death penalty last spring, Coash was in the Senate chamber, rosary in hand, praying that his colleagues would vote for abolition. His prayers were answered, and hard work affirmed, when enough votes were cast on May 27 to repeal the death penalty.
Although the measure was successful, death penalty supporters, primarily funded by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, immediately responded with a petition to allow citizens to vote on the issue on the November ballot.
“Now it looks like the people of Nebraska will get to vote on it,” Coash said. “I think it will be close.” He’s disappointed that the death penalty could be voted back into existence so soon, but is not giving up.
No justice in the system
Guided by his Catholic faith and conservative principles, Coash continues to fight against the death penalty by reaching out to legislators and citizen’s groups across the country, like he did in Tennessee, laying out the conservative case against the death penalty.
The death penalty blatantly violates some of conservatives’ core values, including fiscal responsibility and limited government, Coash said. Conservatives like him “have a healthy distrust of government getting anything right,” he said, “and giving the government that much power to take a life isn’t what we are all about.”
The death penalty is also a financial drain on states, he said. From initial trial costs to security and housing for death row inmates, oftentimes for decades, states are spending millions more dollars on capital cases than they would on life without parole cases.
“If any other program were this expensive and ineffective, we would have gotten rid of it a long time ago,” Coash said.
“We spend all this money on a system that’s not used,” said Amy Lawrence, coordinator of Tennessee Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. Essentially, she said, “we don’t have the death penalty in Tennessee, but we have the cost.”
Some death row inmates in Tennessee have been incarcerated for 30 years or more; many have seen their execution dates rescheduled multiple times, due to the appeals process or legal challenges to execution methods.
“With the death penalty there’s no legal finality, it’s endless,” said Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Across the country, death sentences have been carried out less and less by states in recent years, but many are still reluctant to abolish the practice outright. Nebraska has only carried out three executions since 1976, the last one nearly 20 years ago. Tennessee has executed six people since 1976, the last one in 2009. The state currently has 65 men and one woman on death row.
When inmates languish on death row for decades, and when victims’ families have to relive the horrific events of a murder or rape trial every time a new appeal comes up, that does not serve anyone well, Coash said. His position against the death penalty was further confirmed after meeting with Miriam Thimm Kelle, whose brother’s killer received a death sentence in Nebraska only to die of natural causes on death row 30 years later. “Where’s the justice in that?” he asked.
Can’t be fixed
During his visit to Middle Tennessee, Coash spoke with state legislators, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell, as well as Bishop David Choby and student and citizen groups.
His visit came at a time when Tennessee Republican leadership was embroiled with sexual harassment accusations against Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin). With this distraction, and the lack of any active bill against the death penalty moving through the legislature this term, it’s not likely that Coash’s visit will bear immediate fruit. However, Rector is hopeful that “it will be a good catalyst to start the conversation” about abolishing the death penalty in Tennessee.
In a meeting with Bishop Choby at the Catholic Pastoral Center, Coash told him how the Nebraska bishops’ public support of the death penalty repeal was vital. “It was an important voice speaking about the consistent value of human life, that it applies to the condemned the same as the unborn,” Coash said.
He assured Bishop Choby that the Catholic Church can make a difference in Tennessee’s efforts to repeal the death penalty.
One of the most important thing that Catholics, or any Tennessee citizens concerned about the death penalty can do, Rector said, is contact your elected representatives and talk about it. “Elected officials need to hear from their constituents, and right now they’re not on this issue,” she said.
Since the death penalty is not something that affects most people’s daily lives, it often flies under the radar, Rector said, but it’s a hugely important issue that does mean life or death to some people. “Everyone agrees this is a broken system,” she said, “and nothing about it is getting less complicated,” whether it’s the questionable sources of lethal injection drugs or the risk of executing an innocent person.
“Humans are flawed and we can’t always get it right,” said Lawrence. Bottom line, the death penalty is a system “we just don’t think can be fixed.”