Legislature votes to abolish death penalty; veto override vote looms

Nebrsska Legislature debates death penalty repeal (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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May 20, 2015 - 6:22pm

The Nebraska Legislature voted Wednesday to abolish the state’s death penalty. Gov. Pete Ricketts said he’ll veto the bill, leaving the final decision up to a veto override vote.


The mood was serious as lawmakers debated the proposal to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty. Senators discussed reasons ranging from personal to political for their positions.

Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz spoke in support of repeal. "As a representative of the people and as someone who campaigned as a person of faith, I do feel compelled to say that I feel as though I represent the people of Nebraska when I represent compassion and when I represent the idea of redemption," Bolz said.

Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete also supported repeal, citing conservative principles. "For many of us this is a matter of conscience. And it’s certainly a matter of conscience for me, at least in part," Ebke said. "But it’s also a matter of trying to be philosophically consistent. If government shouldn’t be trusted to manage our health care, which I think many of us in this room would agree, then why should it be trusted to carry out an irrevocable sentence of death?"

Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash also supported repeal. He spoke about the effect of executions on the staff that has to carry them out. "I had the opportunity to talk to some former corrections officers in states where they’ve executed people. And every one that I talked to said ‘That doesn’t go away.’ And some of them even said they volunteered for the job thinking they were executing justice. But after it was done, it was traumatic for them, and it hurts them," Coash said. "I’m not ready to ask a corrections officer of any level -- one who just started all the way up to a warden or director -- to participate in a killing on behalf of our state. I couldn’t do it."

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene opposed repeal, a position he said most Nebraskans agree with. "The people deserve representation of what they believe. Not because ‘I wouldn’t pull the lever.’ This is disgusting, and I don’t care what anybody says! Collegiality out the window. I represent people. I don’t represent anybody in this room, I represent people. And they want justice. And they want the opportunity for justice," Groene said.

Sen. David Schnoor of Scribner also opposed the repeal bill, introduced by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha. "If you vote in favor of this, you’ll be known to have taken the side of the senator that I believe has more murders in his district than all of the state of Nebraska combined. You’ll be taking the side of the senator that on Jan. 9 of 2002 sat here on the floor and handed out desecrated rosary beads and talked about the Catholic Church in a negative way. You’ll also be remembered for siding with the senator that has said the police are his ISIS, where he would shoot first and ask questions later. Because that’s who’s presenting this bill," Schnoor said.

For his part, Chambers, who has made abolishing the death penalty his signature issue for 40 years in the Legislature, said it was an historic occasion. "Nebraska has a chance to step into history, on the right side of history. To take a step that will be beneficial toward the advancement of a civilized society which is showing its maturity, and is reflecting a humane sense of justice," Chambers said.

After two hours of debate, senators voted 34-14 to end a filibuster against the bill. They then voted 32-15 final approval of repeal. In a news conference before the vote, Gov. Pete Ricketts said he would veto the bill. "This is a case where the Legislature is completely out of touch with the overwhelming number of Nebraskans that I talk to. For the last years and a half I have travelled the state. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s traveled the state more than I have. And Nebraskans overwhelmingly support the death penalty," Ricketts said.

It would take 30 votes to override the governor’s veto and finally repeal Nebraska’s death penalty.

In other legislative action Wednesday, lawmakers watered down another bill Ricketts opposes which would reduce some prison sentences. They adopted an amendment by Omaha Sen. Burke Harr that would keep extra sentences for so-called habitual criminals convicted for the third time. The bill still does away with most mandatory minimum sentences.

And Gov. Ricketts announced he will sign the 2-year, $8.7 billion budget passed by the Legislature last week, without issuing any line item vetoes. Ricketts praised lawmakers for holding down the growth in spending, and devoting additional funds to a property tax credit fund, although he said more work remains to be done.

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