Nebraska Abolishes Death Penalty

George Lavender

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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