Regardless of what the governor does, the legislature has already staked out new ground. "It has broken one of the cardinal rules of American politics: Never be perceived as being soft on crime," says TIME senior writer Eric Pooley. "By their action, the legislature has voted to choose intelligent inquiry over politics." Beyond the question of race, Nebraska legislators also voted to find out what socioeconomic factors distinguish the stateís 10 death row inmates from its 165 other murderers who were sentenced to prison instead. Opponents of the death penalty believe the loosening of many procedural safeguards by the U.S. Supreme Court over the years has increased the possibility of arbitrariness in decisions involving the death sentence. The fact that a middle-American state such as Nebraska could be on the verge of exploring these issues suggests that the nation at large could also soon be asking the same questions.
As the number of executions in America keeps increasing -- 44 so far this year and perhaps 100 by the end of 1999 -- concerns about the fair application of the ultimate punishment are rising too. The reason: Of the 3,600 inmates on death row, 42 percent are black. On Thursday, in a dramatic indication of how seriously the worries have grown, the Nebraska state legislature voted 27 to 21 to impose a two-year moratorium on executions in the state to allow time to study the role of race and socioeconomic factors on capital punishment sentencing. Pro-death penalty Governor Mike Johanns must decide whether to sign the bill.