Nebraska Death Penalty Drive May Be Derailed

     LINCOLN, Neb. (CN) – Death penalty opponents sued Nebraska on Thursday, and a group that wants to reinstate capital punishment there, claiming its ballot initiative was flawed and all the signatures are invalid.
     The petitions failed to state that one of the sponsors of the referendum is Governor Pete Ricketts – a fatal flaw, the plaintiffs say.
     The state’s conservative unicameral Legislature voted on May 20 to ban the death penalty and a week later overrode Ricketts’ veto.
     “All Nebraskans support our robust tradition of direct democracy, including referendum campaigns,” said Alan Peterson, the plaintiffs’ lead counsel. “However, all Nebraskans also want a fair process where everyone plays by the rules. In the case of the death penalty referendum it is clear that Governor Ricketts and his supporters failed to do their due diligence and appeared to have cut corners.”
     Death penalty opponents Christy and Richard Hargesheimer sued the Nebraska Secretary of State, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, and its board members, in Lancaster County Court.
     They claim the group failed to list the name and address of every sponsor of its petition – with Gov. Pete Ricketts’ name a fatal exception.
     Nebraska’s referendum law requires that “a sworn statement containing the names and street address of every person, corporation, or association sponsoring the petition” be filed with the Secretary of State before valid signatures can be obtained.
     “That statute is among several statutory provisions intended to prevent fraud in the petition process, and in particular to require full disclosure of every true principal and real leader behind the referendum,” the complaint states.
     It adds that some voters might be “put off” by the “disclosure of the primary sponsor as the very governor whose veto was just overridden by the duly elected Legislature, and they may be influenced … toward declining to sign.”
     The sworn statement submitted before petitions were circulated included the names of board members of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, but not Gov. Ricketts.
     But Ricketts took a primary role in the petition drive and was its main financier, donating more than $200,000 and working closely with organizers throughout the process, the complaint states.
     “The governor’s sponsorship of the referendum would show formally that rather than prepare to support, enforce and execute this duly passed law, he has instead aligned himself, his political allies and persons directly controlled and organized by him and sponsored this referendum,” the complaint states.
     The Hargesheimers seek an injunction to stop the referendum process and want the petitions gathered this summer declared invalid.
     “We look forward to having our day in court and defending a fair process for everyone,” Christy Hargesheimer said in a statement released by Nebraskans for Public Safety. “Powerful interests like the governor are not entitled to their own set of rules to pursue their own political objectives.”
     Gov. Ricketts is traveling in Asia on a trade mission and could not be reached for comment.
     The issue has proved a thorny one for the first-term Republican. Ricketts also has been stymied in his effort to obtain one of the drugs of a three-drug cocktail that the state uses to kill people. As the drug is no longer produced in the United States, he and corrections officials contracted with a small pharmaceutical broker in India to import the drug, despite objections from the ACLU and warnings from the Food and Drug Administration that it is illegal to import sodium thiopental . The FDA has blocked shipment of the $54,400 order from India, as it said it would.
     Nebraska last executed a prisoner in 1997, by electric chair, before the state supreme court outlawed that method of killing.

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