The state’s attorney general, Doug Peterson, has also criticized the legislature’s decision, which he said “weakened [Nebraska’s] ability to properly administer appropriate justice.”
Ricketts had previously threatened to veto the bill, which lawmakers approved and sent to his desk Wednesday.
However, for Ricketts’s veto to be upheld, it appears he will have to change the minds of some Nebraska lawmakers. In the state’s unicameral legislature, which has 49 state senators, it takes 30 votes to override a veto from the governor. On Wednesday, there were 32 senators voting in favor of the bill.
“I will continue to work with senators to sustain my veto when I issue it,” Ricketts said. He has until next week to officially veto the legislation.
If the bill does become law, Nebraska would be the 19th state to formally abolish the death penalty.
It would also be an outlier among states to act on the issue recently. Several states have repealed the death penalty or announced moratoriums over the last decade, but they have typically been blue states such as Maryland, which was the most recent state to formally abolish the practice.
While a majority of Americans support the death penalty (a number that has been falling for two decades), there is a very clear partisan divide on the issue: Three-quarters of Republicans are in favor of capital punishment, while a majority of Democrats oppose it.
Nebraska is a reliably red state with a conservative legislature, making it something of an unexpected place to see the death penalty on the precipice of disappearing. Some lawmakers have pushed for a repeal for religious reasons, while others have pointed to wrongful convictions. Still others have pointed to it as an example of a wasteful government program.
“The reality is Nebraska hasn’t executed anybody in about 20 years,” State Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican who co-sponsored the repeal legislation, said in an interview. “That inability spoke to my feelings about inefficient government. I’ve said frequently, if any other program was as inefficient and as costly as this has been, we would’ve gotten rid of it a long time ago.”
Nebraska last executed an inmate in 1997. Coash described his own personal evolution on the issue, which he traced back to that last execution, when he was a college student who lived not far from where the execution would be carried out.
“I went down to the state penitentiary where they were having the execution that evening,” he said this week. “Out in the parking lot of the penitentiary, there was a party, basically. There was a band, they were cooking, people were tailgating. they had a countdown, like you see at New Year’s Eve parties. … It was a big party. You wouldn’t have known you were at an execution.”
He also said he saw another group praying on the other side of a security fence.
“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. My views on the death penalty changed pretty significantly after that happened.”
There are 11 inmates on the state’s death row. Their sentences would all be converted to life imprisonment if the bill goes into effect.