How to repeal the death penalty, from the Republican who did it

Nebraska state Sen. Colby Coash during debate in May.
Nebraska state Sen. Colby Coash during debate in May. AP

Colby Coash is a 39-year-old state senator in Nebraska. He’s a father of a six-year-old boy and part owner of a microbrewery. He likes football and NASCAR, especially the drivers of Fords. Last week, just for fun, he gave wrestling names to all his colleagues in the Senate. His was “Chaos.”

Coash also happens to be a bit of a rock star in anti-death penalty circles, because as a Republican legislator in a conservative state, he led the effort this year to repeal the state’s death penalty.

Now, the unassuming Coash is getting invitations to speak and meet with people across the country, including in Charlotte, where he’s the featured attraction at a luncheon today hosted by North Carolina Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty.

This morning, we sat down for breakfast in Uptown, where Coash talked about how a solid conservative got this non-conservative idea passed in his red state. It’s simple, he says, at least conceptually. Repealing the death penalty is the conservative thing to do.

“You have to change the narrative,” he says.

That means instead of offering up the traditional arguments against capital punishment – unequal justice and inequitable application of death sentences – Coash gave his fellow conservatives three reasons the death penalty violated their principles:

It’s inefficient. Nebraska, like many states, hasn’t executed a death row inmate in decades – 1995 was the last execution. Yet state and local prosecutors pay far more to prosecute capital cases and handle death row appeals. One Nebraska county, he says, was forced to put up its snowplows for collateral to borrow money for prosecuting a death penalty case. “If any other program was as inefficient as this, we would eliminate it,” Coash says.

It misplaces power. “Conservatives want limited government,” Coash says. “We believe in emphasizing the power of the people.” The death penalty, he argues, represents a supreme power that’s given to the state. “That’s too much power for government,” he says.

It doesn’t deliver justice. Says Coash: “I got to know a victim – a woman whose brother’s killer is on death row. He’s been there for 30-something years. She came to me and said, ‘How is it justice when the government tells me that for this horrific thing that happened, the state was going to execute him – and it never happens?’”

It worked. Coash gathered enough Republican support to pass repeal, then he kept enough votes intact to override Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto with a two-thirds majority.

Could the same happen in North Carolina?

Coash says he had a few advantages back home that lawmakers might not have here. First, Nebraska’s legislature is “unicameral,” meaning it has just one chamber, the Senate. That means there’s only one group of lawmakers to persuade, cajole and keep together when things get hot from public backlash.

Also, the Nebraska Senate had an influx of new Republican lawmakers who are more willing to entertain new perspectives on issues, including this one.

Finally, Nebraska has term limits – two four-year terms in the Senate and you’re done. That can be liberating to a state lawmaker contemplating a controversial vote.

In the end, though, Coash believes the repeal passed because it was the right thing to do – no matter your party. “You don’t have to turn in your Republican card because you support death penalty repeal,” he says. “You can use what’s on the back of that card.”

It’s a nice line, and it’s one of a handful he has when he talks to repeal advocates and legislators. This week, he met with Republican Rep. Jon Hardister of Guilford County, who’s trying to start similar conservations in the N.C. House.

All of which might seem like a longshot. Republican leadership in Raleigh is rooted and supportive of capital punishment.

But just as unlikely is Colby Coash, Nebraska conservative, finishing off a biscuit in Charlotte before he gives a pep talk to death penalty opponents.

“You’re sitting there thinking ‘Hell, no, repeal could never happen in North Carolina,’” he says.

“We were saying the same thing in Nebraska a year ago.”

Peter St. Onge