By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Death penalty opponents are joining forces to oppose a ballot campaign that could reinstate capital punishment in Nebraska, the new coalition announced Thursday.
Nebraskans for Public Safety said it will advocate for “smart alternatives” to the death penalty and argue to the public that the punishment abolished by lawmakers is broken beyond repair.
The group formed in response to another coalition, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which launched a petition drive to put capital punishment on the ballot in 2016. In a landmark vote last month, Nebraska lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto and repealed the death penalty.
The Nebraskans for Public Safety coalition includes religious and conservative leaders and a retired Sarpy County judge. Participating organizations include Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the Nebraska Innocence Project, the ACLU of Nebraska and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.
Retired Sarpy County District Judge Ronald Reagan said he supported the effort as a fiscal conservative. Reagan also sat on the three-judge panel that sentenced former Nebraska inmate John Joubert to death; Joubert was executed in 1996.
“I know firsthand the death penalty is broken and beyond repair,” Reagan said in a statement. “It is, quite simply, a state-sanctioned revenge which has no deterrent effect and no place in a civilized society. Keeping it in Nebraska law will not lower the murder rate nor furnish any protection to our law officers.”
Bryan Baumgart, the immediate past chair of the Douglas County Republicans, said the death penalty represents a failed government program because of the state’s inability to carry out an execution since 1997.
He also pointed to the support from Republican state senators who sided with Democrats to make the repeal possible. Nebraska’s vote made it the first conservative-leaning state to end capital punishment since North Dakota in 1973.
“Many Nebraskans are appalled by efforts to undo the conservative-backed repeal of the death penalty,” Baumgart said.
The Rev. Lauren Ekdahl of Scottsbluff, a faith leader with a long history of advocating for the repeal, said Nebraskans should decline to sign the petitions as a matter of conscience.
“Every citizen of the state of Nebraska has a stake in this referendum campaign and has a clear choice before them,” she said.
Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU Nebraska, said the public debate should focus on issues other than the death penalty, such education, taxes and the economy.
“It is time for our state to move forward in a positive manner and to focus on the future of Nebraska,” she said.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has to gather roughly 57,000 signatures of registered voters by Aug. 27 to place the law on the ballot, and 115,000 to suspend the law before voters decide the question. They also must gather signatures from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties.