Senators give first-round approval to abolishing Nebraska's death penalty

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April 16, 2015 - 5:52pm

Nebraska lawmakers gave first-round approval Thursday to a bill that would abolish the state’s death penalty. But abolition opponents, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, vowed to continue the fight to keep capital punishment on the books. Caution: this report contains some extremely graphic material that may not be suitable for children or adolescents.


Proposals to abolish the death penalty have been introduced more than 20 times since Nebraska, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision, reinstated capital punishment in 1973. But Thursday’s vote was apparently the first time that such a bill has advanced past first round debate since 1979. That year, lawmakers actually voted to repeal the death penalty, but did not have enough votes to override a veto by then-Gov. Charley Thone.

Now, as then, the lead sponsor of the repeal effort is Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha. Opening debate on his proposal Thursday, Chambers referred to developments around the country. "Over 150 people in the last few years have been taken off death row because they were innocent. I know there are people who want to believe that no innocent person has ever been executed in this country. But when you have this many people conclusively proved by DNA evidence to be actually innocent, there is no escaping the conclusion that innocent people indeed have been executed," he said.

Arguing for keeping the death penalty, Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner said that was not the case in Nebraska. Leading off for opponents of abolition, Kintner anticipated supporters’ arguments. "We will hear that the state should just pass the bill if we aren’t going to use the death penalty anyway. We will hear a lot of data. But what we won’t hear is we won’t hear claims that any of the 11 convicted murderers who are currently on Nebraska’s death row are innocent," he said.

Some senators who agreed with Kintner described at length gruesome crimes people on death row had committed. Omaha Sen. Merv Riepe described the victim of a murder in Scottsbluff. Riepe said the victim was "a three year old, innocent little boy whose skull was crushed twice and decapitated." He said the boy’s body was cut into pieces and parts were fed to a dog, some were boiled, and some were found in a freezer.

But Sen. Tommy Garrett of Omaha said such stories were not convincing. " We don’t deny there are heinous crimes. But you’re not making an argument. What you’re doing is you’re stating the graphic details of some heinous crimes," he said. "We know there are heinous crimes, and people should pay the price for that. But they should not pay for (them with) their life.

Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash recalled as a college student being part of a raucous crowd, complete with barbeque and a band, outside the Nebraska State Penitentiary in 1994 to support the execution of convicted murderer Wili Otey, while execution opponents quietly prayed. "I was on the wrong side of that debate that night. And I never forgot it. And I didn’t at the time anticipate being part of state government. But I always thought that if I ever had the opportunity, I would not be on that side of the debate again. I would not be part of a blood lust. The death penalty is not justice. It is revenge," he said.

Hours before senators voted, Gov. Pete Ricketts repeated his opposition to repealing the death penalty. "As I have said before, I will veto any attempt to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska, because its repeal represents a real threat to public safety. Sen. Chambers’ plan ends important legal protections that have served Nebraska law enforcement and the public well. It is a long held tradition that Nebraskans are the second house in our state’s legislative process. Now is the time for Nebraskans to make your voice heard -- to stand in support of law enforcement who work hard every day to protect the public safety," he said.

It would take 30 votes to override a veto, and on the first round of voting, senators voted 30-13 to repeal the death penalty. It would have taken 33 votes to overcome a filibuster if repeal opponents had kept on debating. But just before the vote, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy, a leading opponent of repeal, withdrew several amendments that could have prolonged debate.

McCoy said later it had been an "instructive" morning for seeing where senators stand, adding that he would not rule out a filibuster at a later stage of debate. The repeal measure would still require two more rounds of voting before being sent to the governor for his promised veto, followed by an override vote.

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