Death penalty repeal headed to final vote in Nebraska


Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - An effort to repeal the death penalty cleared another critical vote in the Legislature on Friday, increasing the odds that Nebraska will become the first conservative state to outlaw capital punishment in more than 40 years.

Lawmakers voted 30-16 on Friday to advance the repeal measure through the second of three required votes. Death penalty supporters tried but failed to block the bill with a filibuster, a tactic that has succeeded in past years.

One final vote is required before it goes to Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, a death penalty proponent who has promised a veto. If the current support holds, the bill will have a veto-proof majority.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, has fought for nearly four decades to abolish capital punishment. Chambers said he was pleased with the vote, but stressed that he was remaining cautious.

“It was a historic vote,” Chambers said. “But when a thing is of historic significance, it is never because of a single individual or a single event.”

Nebraska lawmakers passed a death-penalty repeal bill once before, in 1979, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Charles Thone.

Some lawmakers have argued that Nebraska should abolish capital punishment because it has only wasted money and created a false promise for victims’ families. The state hasn’t executed anyone since 1997, and some prisoners have been on death row for decades.

The last conservative state to abolish the death penalty was North Dakota in 1973. In the past six years, four moderate-to-liberal states have ended capital punishment: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012 and Maryland in 2013. Thirty-two states still have death penalty laws.

Ricketts said in a statement that eliminating the death penalty would put the public at risk.

“The death penalty in Nebraska remains an appropriate tool in sentencing the most heinous criminals,” the governor said. “My administration has taken steps to fix management issues that have previously hindered carrying out the death penalty. Today’s vote by the Legislature is out of touch with Nebraska citizens that I talk to on this issue.”

Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, who opposes the death penalty, said Nebraska has imposed the sentence arbitrarily - allowing life sentences for some heinous crimes but not for others. Nordquist said life without parole would apply equally to all of the most serious cases.

“We can get to a point where we have a consistent policy, where we aren’t saying that some cases are the worst of the worst,” Nordquist said.

Lawmakers who support the death penalty argued that Nebraska should keep it for the “worst of the worst,” such as those who raped children or tortured their victims before murdering them.

“We must deliver a punishment that makes it crystal clear just how much we value, respect and mourn the innocent human lives that were so brutally violated,” said Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, who led the filibuster.

McCoy filed an amendment that would have placed the death penalty question on the statewide ballot, but senators rejected it.

Ricketts announced Thursday that state officials have bought all three drugs required for executions. Nebraska lost its ability to execute prisoners when its supply of sodium thiopental, a required lethal injection drug, expired in December 2013.

The state spent $54,400 on two drugs, according to sales invoices released by the governor’s office.

Ricketts and his corrections director, Scott Frakes, said the state possesses one of the three lethal injection drugs that state law requires for executions and will receive the other two in the near future. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has said three of Nebraska’s 11 death-row inmates have exhausted all of their appeals.

Ricketts said the department has already obtained potassium chloride, a drug that stops the heart, and has bought the other two drugs - sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide - from a distributor in West Bengal, India. Sodium thiopental serves as an anesthetic, and pancuronium bromide is a muscle relaxant that induces paralysis.

Chambers said the purchase will unleash a new wave of state and federal appeals that prevents any executions from proceeding. Chambers said the announcement just before the debate was intended to mislead lawmakers and the public.

“They won’t get drugs that they’re going to be able to use legally in this state,” he said.

On Friday, the ACLU of Nebraska announced that it is investigating the state’s purchase. The civil liberties group filed an open request to review whether the order was lawful.

Assistant Nebraska Attorney General Jim Smith, who handled previous death penalty cases, has said the issues raised in past cases were later resolved.

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