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The Prison Complex

Friday, May 29, 2015, 2:13 pm

Nebraska Abolishes Death Penalty

By George Lavender

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It was 38 times lucky for Ernie Chambers. This week the Nebraska legislator finally succeeded in passing a veto-proof bill to abolish the state’s death penalty. 

As the New York Times reports, Nebraska is the first predominantly Republican state in more than 40 years to do away with capital punishment.

After more than two hours of emotional speeches at the Capitol here, the Legislature, by a 30-to-19 vote that cut across party lines, overrode the governor’s veto of a bill repealing the state’s death penalty law. After the repeal measure passed, by just enough votes to overcome the veto, dozens of spectators in the balcony burst into celebration.

The vote capped a monthslong battle that pitted most lawmakers in the unicameral Legislature against the governor, many law enforcement officials and some family members of murder victims whose killers are on death row. The Legislature approved the repeal bill three times this year, each time by a veto-proof majority, before sending it to Mr. Ricketts’s desk. Adding to the drama, two senators who had previously voted for repeal switched to support the governor at the last minute. Continue reading...

Chambers introduced a bill to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty every year since he was elected in 1970. In 1979, his bill passed the legislature only to be vetoed by then-Governor Charles Thone. This time around there were enough votes to over-ride a veto from Governor Pete Rickett a staunch supporter of capital punishment.

In an interview with The Guardian, Chambers attributes his bill's success this time around to shifting attitudes among Republicans.

…Chambers says that he believes that the conservatives who voted to abolish the death penalty were merely being true to their fundamental principles. “Conservatives have vowed that whenever they find a government program that isn’t working, they will scrap it. And if there is a government program that doesn’t achieve its goals, it’s the death penalty.”

He adds: “The irony is that the so-called conservatives are now giving the same arguments against the death penalty that the abolitionists have always given.” Continue reading…

Nebraska has not put an inmate to death since 1997 when Robert E Williams was executed by electric chair.

Like many states, in recent years Nebraska’s ability to carry out its death penalty has been beset by difficulties obtaining drugs for use in lethal injections. In 2011, the execution of Carey Dean Moore was stayed by the state’s Supreme Court, after his lawyers challenged the execution protocol as well as the legality of purchasing the drugs from an Indian pharmaceutical company. Illegally importing the drugs earned Nebraska an official admonishment from the Drug Enforcement Administration but the state later received a permit for future imports . The drugs were never used.  

Ten prisoners remain on Nebraska’s death row.

The New York Times reports that reaction among Nebraskans was mixed.

In downtown Ceresco, Neb., about 18 miles north of Lincoln, Wayne Ambrosias, owner of the Sweet Pea Market, said he did not want his tax dollars used to pay for murderers to stay in prison for their entire lives. And he echoed the governor’s statement that the lawmakers who supported the death penalty repeal bill were out of touch with a widely conservative public.

“I don’t think the politicians are in line with the everyday people,” Mr. Ambrosias said on Wednesday, just before the vote. “I think it’s more of a political move. I don’t think the people are telling them that’s what they want.”

But others said they saw the issue differently, rejecting the argument that the death penalty was necessary to deter crime.

“A lot of times, murder is a crime of passion,” said Don Johnson, a retired commercial fisherman from Alaska now living in Ceresco. “I don’t think they think about the death penalty when they kill somebody or somebody gets killed. I don’t think it’s a preventative measure at all.” Continue reading.. 

For more about the history of the death penalty check out The Prison Complex timeline here

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.

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