Nebraska abolishes death penalty in landmark override vote
May. 28, 2015
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska abolished the death penalty on Wednesday over the governor's objections in a move pushed through the Legislature with unusual backing from conservatives who oppose capital punishment for religious, financial and practical reasons.
Senators in the one-house Legislature voted 30-19 to override the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican who supports the death penalty. The vote makes Nebraska the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the punishment since North Dakota in 1973.
The override vote — passed by the narrowest possible margin — drew a burst of applause from death penalty opponents in the gallery above the legislative chamber.
"Whenever anything historic occurs, it's never the doing of one person," said Sen. Ernie Chambers, an Independent who introduced a repeal measure 38 times. "I've been pushing for this for 40 years, but all of this time it's never been done. If it could be done by one man, it would have been done a long time ago."
Nebraska joins 18 other states and the District of Columbia in banning the ultimate punishment. Shortly after the vote, Ricketts issued a statement condemning the Legislature.
"My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families," Ricketts said in a statement. "While the Legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue."
Nebraska's action to repeal the death penalty is unusual because of its traditionally conservative leanings. Maryland was the last state to end capital punishment, in 2013. Three other moderate-to-liberal states have done so in recent years: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011 and Connecticut in 2012.
Some senators said they philosophically support the death penalty but became convinced the state will never carry out another execution because of legal obstacles. Nebraska hasn't executed an inmate since a 1997 electrocution, and the state has never done so with its current lethal injection protocol.
Nebraska lost its ability to execute inmates in December 2013, when one of the three lethal injection drugs required by state law expired. Many senators were swayed by the fact that state officials have repeatedly failed to administer the punishment, calling the death penalty a poorly managed and inefficient government program.
"The taxpayers have not gotten the bang for their buck on this death penalty for almost 20 years," said Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican and death penalty opponent. "This program is broken. How many years will people stand up and say we need this?"
Other Republican senators said they listened carefully to leaders in the Catholic church who opposed capital punishment.
Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, a Democrat and death penalty opponent, said Republican support was critical in the override effort. Nebraska's officially nonpartisan Legislature is comprised of 35 registered Republicans, 13 Democrats and an independent.
"This wouldn't have happened without the fiscally responsible Republicans who aren't just beholden to conservative talking points, but are thoughtful about policy," Nordquist said.
Not all conservative senators embraced the repeal. Minutes after the vote, Republican state Sen. Beau McCoy announced the formation of a campaign committee that will consider putting the issue on the statewide ballot in 2016.
"I'm clearly very disappointed in what just took place, but this fight will continue," said McCoy, a death penalty proponent.
Ricketts announced this month that the state has purchased two of the drugs that the state now lacks, but opponents have said they still aren't convinced Nebraska will be able to resume executions. On Tuesday, Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson implored lawmakers to give state officials more time to prepare.
The last time Nebraska lawmakers passed a death penalty repeal bill was in 1979, but senators at the time didn't have enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto.
Groups that support abolition have said Nebraska could help build momentum in other conservative states.
"The Nebraska Legislature, with the world watching, made their voice a part of the national conversation," said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska. "We are a nation that is turning away from the death penalty."
Nebraska now has 10 men on death row, after one died on Sunday of natural causes. Michael Ryan spent three decades on death row for the 1985 cult killings of two people, including a 5-year-old boy. During a legislative hearing earlier this year, Chambers testified that Ryan had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.