- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2015

A move to end the death penalty in one of the nation’s reddest states cleared a key hurdle Thursday as Nebraska’s unicameral legislature easily advanced a bill that would abolish capital punishment.

The death penalty debate has divided conservatives in the state, with the nonpartisan legislature approving the measure on the first of three readings 30-13 Thursday despite a threatened veto from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Nine conservative lawmakers have signed on or co-sponsored Legislative Bill 268, replacing death by lethal injection with a maximum sentence of life in prison for capital crimes. Even with the death penalty on the books and 11 prisoners on death row, the state has not executed anyone since 1997.

The 30 votes for the bill, introduced by state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, passed the first round of voting with enough votes to override a veto, but fell three short of the 33 votes necessary to shut down a filibuster. It now has to pass through two more rounds of votes before it can go to Mr. Ricketts‘ desk.

Supporters of repealing the death penalty in Nebraska have argued that ending capital punishment, aside from the moral arguments, makes good fiscal sense, saving the state millions of dollars.



“I feel like this mirrors what we have been hearing from across the state,” Stacy Anderson, executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said Thursday. “The death penalty does not provide anything useful to Nebraska. It is not making people any safer and is not saving lives. It is also wasting taxpayer dollars.”

Others argued that ending the death penalty was in part a conservative idea, a protest against big and intrusive state control.

“Increasingly we are finding conservatives are viewing capital punishment as a big-government program. I can’t think of a bigger program that can kill you,” Marc Hyden, an activist with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said Thursday, citing cases where those sentenced to death were later exonerated. “This is an error-prone government that reserves that authority.”

Nebraska also has no way to carry out death sentences now because its supply of sodium thiopental, the anesthetic used for its lethal injection procedure, expired in December 2013. Mr. Ricketts and Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson have vowed to find a solution, but the Department of Correctional Services has yet to obtain a new supply, The Associated Press reported.

But opponents of the Nebraska repeal bill have not conceded, arguing that the death penalty is not more expensive than a maximum life sentence.

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion said supporters of the death penalty have not given up, with the legislature facing two more floor votes. But he told the Lincoln Journal Star he wasn’t surprised by the first vote.

“This body is intent on moving the progressive left agenda forward, and that includes no death penalty,” he said. “So we’ll have to keep working. We’ll hope the people speak.”

Even before the debate began, Gov. Ricketts highlighted a fiscal analysis attached to the bill that found that it would not result in any considerable savings.

“The costs of litigating the appeals that are filed in death penalty cases are negligible to the state and in no way offset the death penalty’s usefulness in sentencing the worst criminals,” Mr. Ricketts wrote in his weekly column.

A new Pew Research survey released Thursday found that while a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, the backing for capital punishment is at a 40-year low. According to Pew, 56 percent of those polled favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 38 percent are opposed.

Support for the death penalty has declined 6 percentage points, from 62 percent, since 2011. By contrast, support for capital punishment in the 1980s and 1990s was above 70 percent, reaching 78 percent in a 1996 survey. Much of the decline in support has come among Democrats, where just 40 percent now favor capital punishment compared to 56 percent against.

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