The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nebraska lawmakers abolish the death penalty, narrowly overriding governor’s veto

Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers, center, listens in Lincoln, Neb., to debate over whether to override the veto on Wednesday. (Nati Harnik/AP)

Nebraska lawmakers voted to abolish the death penalty Wednesday, overriding a veto from the governor and making that state the 19th in the country to ban capital punishment.

The narrow vote in Lincoln on Wednesday made Nebraska the first state in two years to formally abandon the death penalty, a decision that comes amid a decline in executions and roiling uncertainty regarding how to carry out lethal injections.

Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) had been a vocal critic of the bill before he vetoed it on Tuesday afternoon, writing in a letter to the legislature that it was “cruel” to the relatives of the victims of people sentenced to death.

The state’s lawmakers voted last week for the third time to drop the death penalty, passing the measure with enough support to override a veto that Ricketts had said was coming.

In the unicameral Nebraska legislature, it takes 30 of the 49 senators to override the veto. Last week, 32 senators voted to repeal the death penalty. A spokesman for Ricketts said that he had been traveling the state to visit senators in an effort to sustain his veto.

Because an override involves repudiating the governor, it is “a very different vote,” said State Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican who co-sponsored the repeal bill.

“I knew it was tenuous at best. It went down to the end,” Coash said in a telephone interview after the override passed. “I knew it was going to be difficult.”

On Wednesday, 30 senators voted to override Ricketts’s veto. Ricketts condemned the decision, releasing a statement thanking everyone who voted to sustain his veto by name.

“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” Ricketts said in the statement. “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.”

The Nebraska bill’s passage was unusual, because while numerous states have abolished or halted capital punishment in recent years, they have generally been more politically blue. But Nebraska is as red as a state gets, and the legislature is largely conservative. The last conservative state to abolish the death penalty was North Dakota in 1973.

A majority of Americans support the death penalty — a level of support that has been falling consistently for two decades — but that sentiment is much stronger among Republicans than Democrats. Capital punishment is supported by more than three-quarters of Republicans, but it is opposed by a majority of Democrats.

[How the death penalty continued its slow, steady decline in 2014]

Some lawmakers in Nebraska offered a conservative argument for repealing the death penalty there, painting it as an example of government waste. Other lawmakers said they supported the bill for religions reasons or because of cases where people were wrongly convicted.

“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,” Coash said after the legislature approved it last week.

Nebraska has not executed an inmate since 1997. It currently has 10 inmates on death row; there were 11 inmates when the bill was passed last week, but the state Department of Corrections said that an inmate died on Sunday. Under the bill, these inmates will now get life sentences.

“This was the right people at the right time,” Coash said. “One of the arguments I continued to use is, this is a broken system. Had we executed somebody two years ago, I don’t think we would’ve been successful today. But it’s clear it was a broken system that was re-victimizing families, it was costing us money.”

Opponents of the repeal bill quickly promised action. State Sen. Beau McCoy, who voted to keep the death penalty, said after the override he would be forming a group aimed at a ballot initiative to let voters determine the death penalty’s fate.

“Those of us that fought very hard to keep the death penalty in place in Nebraska are disappointed, but we know this is just the beginning of a continued long discussion about this issue in our state,” McCoy, a Republican, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

McCoy, who said he feels the death penalty is necessary to keep Nebraskans safe, said he believed before the vote that lawmakers would sustain the governor’s veto.

“It’s pretty clear in my mind that a majority of Nebraskans…favor keeping the death penalty,” McCoy said. “I think it’s tragic and unfortunate that a number of my colleagues today decided to go against the will of those Nebraskans.”

[How lethal injection has dramatically changed in recent years]

The override’s single-vote margin follows a recent trend of razor-thin votes on the death penalty: New Hampshire, the last state in New England with the death penalty, almost abolished it last year, but the bill failed by a single vote. Earlier this year, Montana’s legislature deadlocked on a bill that would have banned the death penalty there.

Maryland was the last state to formally abolish the death penalty, abandoning it in 2013 and emptying its death row earlier this year.

More than a third of the states without the death penalty have banned it since 2007. And while 31 states and the federal government still have the death penalty, in reality only a small handful of states actually carry out executions. Last year, seven states carried out executions, about a third the number of states that executed inmates 15 years earlier, while the number of death sentences and executions have also dropped.

“What we’re seeing is a continuation of the trend in the United States in which states, one by one, abolish the use of the death penalty,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Wednesday. “And one by one, it comes into disuse.”

Dunham said that Nebraska’s decision offers a “road map that other states may follow.”

Some states have also halted the practice without formally abolishing it. Washington state announced a moratorium last year, while Pennsylvania’s governor suspended the death penalty there in February. Oregon’s new governor said this year she will keep that state’s moratorium in place.

[Another execution gone awry. Now what?]

Other states dealing with legal challenges or an ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs have imposed their own delays, creating de facto moratoriums in some places. After Ohio adopted a new lethal injection policy this year, it pushed back its executions scheduled through January 2016. As a result, Ohio — among the most active modern death-penalty states — will go at least two years without any executions.

Georgia suspended executions after an issue with a drug it was going to use and has not announced plans to resume lethal injections. Tennessee canceled its scheduled executions through early next year to let a court consider challenges from inmates. And three states have called off executions until the U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision in a lethal injection case.

The federal government, meanwhile, has the death penalty, but it has a moratorium in place while it reviews its death penalty policy. The government also has no lethal injection drugs, which are much harder to get these days. And more than a quarter of a century after the federal death penalty statute was reinstated, the government has carried out three executions, the last in 2003.

Lethal injection remains the primary method of execution in the United States, but as the drug shortage has persisted, some states have scrambled to figure out how to keep carrying out executions. 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.

Even as other states have struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs, Ricketts said before the death-penalty repeal bill passed the legislature that the state 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.


Meet the state Supreme Court justice who stepped down to protest the death penalty

This post has been updated.