Friday, June 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Veto-Proof Vote Kills|Nebraska Death Penalty

LINCOLN, Neb. (CN) - Nebraska's unicameral Legislature abolished the death penalty Wednesday by 32-15 vote, enough votes to overturn the governor's promised veto.

It was the first death penalty repeal in years from a Republican-dominated state.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, also Republican, has promised to veto the bill, but only 30 votes will be needed to override it. Thirty-five members of the Legislature are Republicans. Fourteen are Democrats and one is Independent.

"It's looking like it could be a very dark day for public safety," Ricketts said at a news conference after the vote.

Ricketts repeatedly urged lawmakers to vote against repeal, but Legislative Bill 268 received support from many conservative senators, as is required for any bill to pass in this deeply Republican state.

"Nebraska will step into history," said state Sen. Senator Ernie Chambers, I-Omaha, during the final debate. Chambers, the only black member of the Legislature and the longest-serving state senator in Nebraska history, said Nebraska would become the first "so-called conservative state" to abolish the death penalty.

Noting that African-Americans are put to death at rates far exceeding white men, Chambers has made repealing the death penalty a focal point of his 40-year career, proposing a capital punishment bill nearly every year he's served.

"The record should be crystal clear on what it is we are doing," Chambers said Wednesday. "We have the opportunity to take one small step for the Legislature, a giant leap for civilization."

The Legislature voted in 1979 to repeal the death penalty, but could not overturn a veto by Gov. Charles Thone.

Supporters of repeal are more optimistic this time. The bill survived four votes this legislative session and overcame spirited filibusters each time.

Nebraska has had a rocky history with the death penalty. The last prisoner executed was Robert Williams, who went to the electric chair in 1997. That method of execution was declared unconstitutional by the Nebraska Supreme Court in 2008. The state changed lethal injection by legislative action a year later, only to see two of the three necessary drugs expire before they could be used.

Just last week Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson said they'd obtained new supplies of the fatal cocktail of drugs, in a last-minute effort to sway the minds of senators. But it appears to have fallen short.

Eleven men are on Nebraska's Death Row. Five are Latino, four are white, and two are black, according to the Nebraska prisons website.


Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.