Legislature overrides Ricketts' veto, abolishes Nebraska's death penalty

May 27, 2015, 10:58 a.m. ·

Sen. Ernie Chambers speaks during debate on the death penalty (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Legislature voted Wednesday to override Gov. Pete Ricketts veto and repeal Nebraska’s death penalty.

It takes 30 votes in the Legislature to override a governor’s veto, and in the end, that’s exactly what repeal supporters got. But not before two and a half hours of intense debate in which the outcome appeared at times in doubt.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who’s made repeal of the death penalty the signature issue of his 40-year legislative career, led off debate. “I wish that I could say that I was my brilliance that brought us to this point. But that would not be true, and we all know it. Had not the conservative faction decided that it’s time for a change, there’s no way that what is happening today would be taking place,” he said.

Among that self-described faction is Omaha Sen. John McCollister, who said executions in the United States have declined from 98 in 1999 to 35 last year. “Its been 18 years since there’s been an execution in Nebraska. Lastly, 12 states in addition to Nebraska have considered legislation to abolish the death penalty. The trend is absolutely clear. And it’s high time the state moved away from the barbaric practice of state sponsored murder,” he said.

But many conservatives resisted repeal. Among them was Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, where five people were killed in a botched bank robbery in 2002. Scheer referred to the argument some senators in favor of repeal made, that their pro-life convictions led them to their position. “My pro-life stand is based on the innocent and those that cannot take care of themselves. Not for someone that has unilaterally and meticulously and premeditatedly taken the life of another. They forfeit that mercy by doing that,” he said.

Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse said convicted murderers on death row have nothing to do with innocent lives taken by abortion. Omaha Omaha Sen. Tanya Cook, supporting repeal, responded “There was a point made earlier about what …”innocent” life has to do with that of someone who is currently on Death Row. And you know what it is? God’s love is the same for all of them.”

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion urged senators to uphold the governor’s veto of repeal. Kintner said most Nebraskans favor the death penalty. “The people of the state, I am confident, are not going to back down on this issue. They expect us to represent their will,” he said.

And Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins predicted even if repeal succeeded, the issue would continue. “If you choose to override the governor’s veto, I am virtually certain there will be a bill next year to take it to a vote of the people. And if we don’t get it out of here, after seeing the results of what’s come in via phone and email, the people will rise up with a petition drive and get it on the ballot themselves,” he said.

Others who supported repeal called the death penalty unjust, because of the possibility of error. Among them was Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue. “I can think of no greater injustice – no greater injustice – than government taking the life of an innocent man or woman,” he said.

Still other repeal supporters argued the death penalty system is broken because of problems including a lack of legally-approved execution drugs. “You cannot fix this. And it won’t go on, whether this override is successful, no executions are going to happen. You all know that. And this debate will continue. Executions are done. LB268 (the repeal bill) is the way to put it in our past,” said Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash.

Just before 4 oclock, the time came for a vote. The tally to override the veto stood at 29 when Legislative Clerk Patrick O’Donnell called on Lincoln Sen. Roy Baker for his vote.

“Sen. Baker?”

“Yes,” Baker replied, setting off applause from spectators in the balcony.

“Please,” said Speaker Galen Hadley, pounding his gavel to end the outburst.

“Thirty ayes, nineteen nays, on the motion that Legislative Bill 268 become law, notwithstanding the objections of the governor, O’Donnell declared. (To see how each senator voted, click here.)

Reaction was swift.

“This overwhelming, bipartisan vote demonstrates again the change in thinking that has taken place on the death penalty over the last few years,” said Stacy Anderson, Executive Director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to The Death Penalty. “Lawmakers and Nebraska residents recognize the realities of an error-prone system that risks executing innocent people and harms murder victim family members.”

Ricketts condemned the Legislature’s action. “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” he said. “While the Legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue.”

And Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha announced formation of Nebraskans for Justice, an organization he said would “explore the possibility of a citizen-driven ballot initiative to give Nebraska citizens the option of reinstating Nebraska’s death penalty.”