Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed a bill Tuesday afternoon that would have abolished the death penalty in the state, setting up a showdown with lawmakers who had passed the bill last week.
Ricketts had previously said he planned to veto the bill and send it back to the legislature, so his veto was not a surprise. Still, it is not clear what will happen to the bill now. It would take 30 senators in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature to override his veto, and 32 senators voted last week to pass the bill.
A spokesman for Ricketts said that he had been traveling the state recently to visit senators in an effort to sustain his veto.
In his letter to the legislature explaining his decision, Ricketts dismissed arguments made by the bill’s advocates who said that it was wasteful to keep capital punishment on the books when it has not been used in Nebraska for nearly two decades. He also said the bill would be “cruel” to the relatives of victims of those sentenced to death.
“Repealing the death penalty sends the wrong message to Nebraskans who overwhelming support capital punishment and look to government to strengthen public safety, not weaken it,” Ricketts, a Republican, said in a statement Tuesday. “Under this bill, there is no guarantee that convicted murderers will stay behind bars for life or not harm other innocent victims.”
The state’s attorney general, Doug Peterson, has also been critical of the bill.
If the senators vote again to turn the bill into Nebraska law, the state would be the 19th state to formally abolish the death penalty.
It would be an outlier among states to act on the issue recently; unlike solidly-red Nebraska, most of the states that have repealed the death penalty or announced moratoriums over the last decade were blue states like Maryland, the most recent state to formally abolish the practice.
The bill would give the 10 inmates on the state’s death row life sentences.
There were 11 inmates on death row when the bill was debated and, ultimately, approved by the legislature, but the state Department of Corrections said Monday that one of those inmates died a day earlier.
Michael Ryan, who has been in prison for nearly three decades, was being treated for an unspecified medical condition, and a cause of death has not been determined, corrections officials said. A grand jury will investigate, which the department said occurs whenever an inmate dies in its custody.