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Hansen: One Nebraska state senator’s long, hard journey from death penalty backer to execution opponent

Hansen: One Nebraska state senator’s long, hard journey from death penalty backer to execution opponent

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Brett Lindstrom looks tired. He looks dazed. The 34-year-old state senator from Omaha sits slumped on a window sill that overlooks the Nebraska State Capitol’s pretty little courtyard, but he does not look out the window at the fresh-cut grass or the swaying tree or the singing birds.

He stares down at the floor, like a man who had 214 emails in his inbox when he got to his office, some of them thanking him, and some of them telling the former Husker quarterback that he is a jerk, or a traitor or the worst thing to happen to Nebraska since the Dust Bowl.

“One was one sentence, in all caps, giant font,” he says. “It said, ‘WHAT WERE YOU THINKING???!!!’”

Brett forces a thin smile. “So at least that one was short and sweet.”

Lindstrom is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, a 21st-century Reaganite, a reliable conservative. And yet, after several months of research and soul-searching, the Omaha financial adviser has made a decision that doesn’t square with the stereotypical view of who he is or what kind of politician he is supposed to be.

One times, two times, three times, he has voted to abolish the death penalty in the state of Nebraska.

Now he faces a fourth and final vote: With a yes vote, he stands opposed to Gov. Pete Ricketts and a sizable and quite vocal chunk of his own party. A no vote, and he retreats from his three previous votes and ignores much of what he says he has learned during months of research.

It is the push of a red button or a green button. It is a decision he must explain to his constituents and one he must live with for the rest of his life.

“I’m still struggling,” he says quietly, sitting on the windowsill a day before the vote. “It comes down to protecting society. Does (the death penalty) protect society? It’s really hard for me to see how it does.”

There’s much confusion in Nebraska and around the country today about how the Legislature, a conservative statehouse in a deep-red state, could possibly repeal the death penalty — something long viewed as a cause of the peace-loving left.

It becomes less shocking when you sit on a window ledge with Brett Lindstrom, and he walks you from where he started to where he ended up.

Not so long ago, his stance was simple: An eye for an eye. These are murderers, his thinking went, the absolute worst of the worst. Of course they should die.

That’s what his mom thought. That’s what his dad thought. That’s what a whole lot of his friends thought. And that’s what Brett thought, too.

That would have been that, except he got elected to the Legislature in District 18, representing a sliver of northwest Omaha. He realized the death penalty would come up in his first session, so he set aside time to read about the issue online.

What he found muddied his black-and-white view, turning it every last shade of gray.

The news from around the country was unsettling: A botched execution in Oklahoma. Studies that show death penalty inmates cost many states a staggering amount of money. The fact that more than 150 death row inmates have been released after DNA or other evidence proved their innocence.

How many Americans, he wondered, had been put to death before new evidence could prove their innocence, too?

The news from Nebraska didn’t make Lindstrom feel much better. The state last executed someone in 1997, when he was a budding football star at Millard West. The ensuing 18 years have seen endless court challenges and a long, meandering journey that led state leaders to India to try to buy the drugs needed to execute death row inmates.

The death penalty doesn’t work so well, Lindstrom decided. He started to ask himself a more basic question: Do we need it?

He turned to religion. Is the death penalty moral, he asked Catholic priests, Protestant ministers and others. Is it just? He got differing answers, but what stuck with him was a question a religious leader shot back: Can’t we protect citizens in 2015 by locking a murderer up for life?

He turned to history — he was a history major at UNL. He thought about how we once burned people at the stake and publicly hanged prisoners with a bloodlust that would appall us now. Is this how we will feel about the death penalty in 50 years? In 100?

He looked around the world. According to Northwestern University, the U.S. executed the fifth-most prisoners in 2013. The rest of the top six: China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia.

“That’s not a list of countries I love,” he says.

And finally he circled back to his own political philosophy, his own bedrock beliefs. Does being truly conservative mean you have to support the death penalty? Or does fighting against big government mean you can take a stand against government-mandated executions?

Isn’t a state killing a citizen the ultimate big-government act?

He started to think that when we split ourselves into teams — red, blue, left, right — sometimes we continue to defend our team’s position, even when the rationale for that position grows tired and calcified. Even when it withers and dies and we’re left arguing for a policy ghost. Maybe you have to do that in Congress, he thought, but you don’t have to do that in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature.

Then he imagined a scale. He set all the evidence for the death penalty on one side. He placed all the evidence against the death penalty on the other side. He pictured what it looked like.

He knew what he had to do.

He voted against the death penalty once, twice, three times, as the pressure mounted, as the angry emails piled into his inbox, as his personal Facebook page got swamped by angry strangers, and as someone left a voicemail hoping his wife and children would be murdered, so he would know how it feels.

Then comes Wednesday afternoon: The fourth, final, crucial vote. He sits in the legislative chamber and listens to hours of impassioned debate, for and against. He knows that a bunch of state senators of all Republican stripes — urban and rural, libertarian, moderate and social conservative — have come to the same conclusion as he has, but he isn’t sure if it’s enough. He does not speak, but he also does not waver, even when fellow senators make not-so-veiled threats that he and other Republicans are endangering their political careers if they vote for repeal.

He has already told the governor where he stands. He has already told his mother where he stands.

At 3:59 p.m., the speaker of the house calls his name. In a quiet, clear voice, Brett Lindstrom says a single word: “Yes.” The speaker presses a green button that lights up a green dot next to his name. Seconds later, there are 30 green dots on the board, the exact number needed to abolish the death penalty in Nebraska. He stands up. He stretches. He still looks tired, but now he looks like a man who will sleep well tonight.

“It would have been easier to vote the other way, that’s for sure,” he tells me after he shakes a few hands and wipes a layer of sweat off his forehead. “It was the hardest vote I ever made. But gathering the facts and making hard choices is what I was elected to do.

“Today, that’s what I believe I did.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com

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