Nebraska took a big step toward abolishing the death penalty on Wednesday, as the state’s legislature voted to abandon capital punishment with enough support to override a likely veto from the governor.
If this law does go into effect, Nebraska would become the latest in a string of states to abandon the death penalty in recent years. But even though capital punishment is less popular than it used to be nationwide and fewer states are carrying out executions, the change in Nebraska would be different: A deeply red state banning a practice that is still quite popular among conservatives.
In Nebraska, though, some lawmakers supported a repeal for religious reasons, because people have been wrongly convicted or because they view the death penalty as an example of government waste.
“Most senators campaigned and they said look, if you send me to Lincoln, I’ll find programs that are inefficient and don’t work and I’ll get rid of them,” State Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican who co-sponsored the repeal legislation, said Wednesday after it passed. “I think this fit that bill. This was an inefficient, expensive program that was not being used, so why have it on the books?”
Nebraska has not carried out an execution since 1997, and the state has executed three inmates since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has spoken out against the bill and said he would veto the legislation, but it is unclear if this would stop the change from happening. The bill passed Wednesday with more votes than would be needed to override his veto.
“The death penalty in Nebraska remains an appropriate tool in sentencing the most heinous criminals,” he said in a statement.
Ricketts has said that repealing the death penalty would endanger people in Nebraska. He also released a statement Wednesday ahead of the vote urging senators not to “give our state’s most heinous criminals more lenient sentences,” saying that he has seen strong support for keeping the death penalty in his travels across Nebraska.
Nebraska has a unicameral legislature with 49 state senators. All bills have to go through three votes in the legislature in order to pass, and the bill passed on Wednesday with 32 senators supporting it, more than the 30 senators who would be needed to override a veto from the governor.
“I can’t speak for anybody else, but my sense is people on both sides of this issue are pretty convicted,” Coash said Wednesday. “On an issue like the death penalty, I don’t see convictions on either side moving.”
Coash said his own mind-set on the issue began to change after he went to what he said was “a big party” near the state penitentiary in Lincoln during the state’s last execution. He was a college student at the time, and he went for the event, which had a band, food, drinking and was basically like a football tailgate with a countdown. On the other side of a security fence, he saw a group praying.
“After that event, I had some time to reflect on that,” he said. “It didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t like how I felt celebrating the state killing somebody.”
The state’s attorney general, Doug Peterson, was critical of the bill after it passed the legislature.
“There have been prior criminal acts in our communities, and I know there will be future criminal acts in Nebraska that will clearly warrant the use of the death penalty as a consequence of the criminal’s heinous, murderous acts,” Peterson said in a statement. “Without the ability to utilize the death penalty, the state has weakened its ability to properly administer appropriate justice.”
If the Nebraska bill does become law, anyone sentenced to death before it goes into effect will have their sentence changed to life imprisonment.
There are 11 inmates currently on death row in Nebraska. The state’s death-row inmates are housed at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, which is about an hour away from Lincoln, though executions are carried out in the basement of the state penitentiary, according to the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
Nebraska would be the 19th state to abolish the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Much of this movement has been recent, with six other states making the change since 2007.
Most of the states to abolish the practice recently have been those reasonably categorized as “blue,” like New York, Illinois, Connecticut and New Jersey.
The last state to formally abolish the death penalty was Maryland, which abandoned the practice in 2013. Former governor Martin O’Malley (D), who pushed for the change in the heavily blue state, commuted the sentences of the four inmates who remained on Maryland’s death row before he left office earlier this year.
New Hampshire, the only remaining state in New England with the death penalty, almost abolished it last year, but the repeal failed by a single vote.
Meanwhile, Nebraska is considered as reliably red as any other state in the country. Nebraska has had only one Democratic governor over the last quarter of a century, while Gallup polling shows that it is one of the states where Republicans consistently outnumber Democrats. The legislature itself is officially nonpartisan, but it is largely conservative.
Even though a majority of Americans support the death penalty, that level of support has been falling consistently for two decades. Republican support for the death penalty has also dipped over that period, but capital punishment is still supported by more than three-quarters of Republicans. (The swing among Democrats has been much, much larger; two decades ago, seven in 10 Democrats favored the death penalty, while today a majority of them oppose it.)
Other states have halted executions recently without formally repealing capital punishment. Washington state announced a moratorium last year, while Oregon’s new governor said this year she is keeping a moratorium there in place. In February, Pennsylvania’s governor said he was suspending the death penalty based on what he called “an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive.”
And last year, a federal judge in the state with the largest death-row population — California — lambasted the system there for being so riddled with delays that hardly anyone sentenced to death is actually executed.
Meanwhile, the federal government has the death penalty on the books, but the government has a moratorium in place while the Justice Department continues to review its execution protocol.
Several states have called off executions recently due to an ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs, other issues involving these drugs or legal challenges.
Ohio called off the executions it had scheduled for this year so it could rework its lethal injection protocols. Georgia indefinitely suspended executions after problems with a drug it was about to use, and the state has not announced plans to resume lethal injections yet. Tennessee called off all of the executions it had scheduled through early next year while a court there considers legal challenges from inmates.
The drug shortage is also the reason why states adopted new and untested combinations of drugs for executions. Some of these executions went awry last year, which is why the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about lethal injection earlier this year. Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama all said they were halting executions until the justices announce their decision.
Lethal injection remains the primary method of execution in the United States, but as the drug shortage has persisted, three states hoping to preserve capital punishment have changed their laws over the past year: Tennessee made the electric chair its backup method, Utah did the same thing for firing squads and Oklahoma said that nitrogen gas would be its second option.
Meanwhile, even as other states struggle to obtain lethal injection drugs, Ricketts announced last week — amid debate over the death-penalty bill in Nebraska — that the state had purchased the drugs needed to carry out an execution. The state corrections department has one drug already, and the other two drugs will arrive “in the near future,” according to Ricketts’s office.