- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2015

Opponents of the death penalty rejoiced when the Nebraska Legislature voted in May to abolish capital punishment, hailing a breakthrough win in a certifiably red state.

Now they are determined not to let Nebraska voters set back their efforts.

A petition drive aimed at giving voters the final say on executions is running up against national opposition, led by a $400,000 donation from the Proteus Action League in Amherst, Massachusetts, a liberal nonprofit with ties to progressive billionaire George Soros.

That’s real money in Nebraska’s relatively inexpensive media markets. The result is a deluge of television and radio ads urging Nebraskans to “decline to sign,” paid for by Nebraskans for Public Safety, a political committee backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Chris Peterson, a spokesman for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which is running the petition campaign to restore the death penalty option, likened the Proteus effort to “voter suppression.”

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty co-founder Bob Evnen accused the ACLU of trying to “sabotage the right to vote on this very important issue.”

“To have a liberal billionaire like George Soros be tied to our opposition is quite telling,” said Mr. Peterson, a Lincoln political strategist. “I don’t think Nebraskans are going to care for that kind of effort to prevent them from being able to vote on an issue of this importance.”

Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU Nebraska and a spokeswoman for Nebraskans for Public Safety, said her group was “honored to have this significant investment in our state” and that nobody should be surprised by the national involvement.

“There is absolutely no doubt that national funders are interested in what is happening in Nebraska,” Ms. Conrad said.

Nebraska became the first conservative-leaning state since North Dakota in 1973 to jettison capital punishment, a move that “has significant impact for Nebraska, but it also happens while our nation is watching and this issue plays out in many of our sister states across this great country,” she said.

“We’re going to continue to fundraise aggressively on the state and national level to ensure we have the resources we need to keep Nebraska’s broken death penalty where it belongs, and that’s in the past,” Ms. Conrad said.

The scramble to squelch the petition drive underscores Nebraska’s newfound prominence in the death penalty debate. The state’s officially nonpartisan but Republican-dominated unicameral Legislature drew national attention by voting in favor of ending executions, then by overriding the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, by one vote on May 27.

In a May 28 editorial, The New York Times declared that if capital punishment can be abolished “in the deep-red heart of America, it can happen anywhere.”

Politico published an article with the headline “How America’s Death Penalty Ends.”

The problem: Many Nebraskans still support the death penalty and are none too pleased by the state Legislature’s surprise about-face. A poll released May 29 conducted by Voter Consumer Research for the Nebraska Republican Party found 64 percent of likely state voters in favor of keeping capital punishment and 28 percent opposed.

“There’s no question a strong majority of Nebraskans support keeping the death penalty and the legislature’s actions don’t reflect that sentiment,” Mr. Peterson said. “We have gotten a really good response.”

The campaign’s biggest challenge is the clock. Organizers have until Aug. 27, or 90 days after the state Legislature adjourns, to gather the necessary 57,000 valid signatures with 5 percent each in 38 of 93 counties.

Volunteers and paid circulators in neon-yellow T-shirts fanned out throughout the state at county fairs and Fourth of July parades. Posts on the organization’s Facebook page alert voters several times per day to the locations of roving signature-gatherers.

That 57,000 figure represents 5 percent of the vote in the previous statewide election. If the group collects twice that number, 10 percent, the newly approved law ending the death penalty will be repealed immediately.

Fighting back

Supporters of the death penalty haven’t raised as much as the opposition, but they are not without resources. The group reported donations totaling $259,744, most of that from the governor, formerly the head of TD Ameritrade, which gave $100,000, and his father, John, who also contributed $100,000.

The campaign to keep the death penalty also has benefited from the powerful testimony of volunteers such as Teri Roberts, whose daughter Andrea Kruger, 33, was one of four people fatally shot at random in August 2013 by ex-con Nikko Jenkins, who now is awaiting a death penalty hearing.

Ms. Roberts is scheduled to gather signatures in front of Valley City Hall next weekend, even though she had both hands and feet amputated in January as a result of a rare infection.

Those trying to keep the initiative off the ballot have enlisted the aid of several conservative legislators who voted to abolish capital punishment, including state Sen. Colby Coash, who appears in television ads urging voters not to sign the petitions.

“Who pays the millions of dollars in legal fees for those appeals? We do. Nebraska taxpayers,” Mr. Coash says. “I’m not signing anything.”

Conservative legislators who voted with liberals cited a combination of arguments, including the cost and length of appeals, the desire to maintain a consistently pro-life position, and a lack of trust in government.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said another factor in the Nebraska debate is that only one-sixth of death sentences are ultimately carried out. The rest are overturned on appeal. Sometimes the prisoner dies before the appeals process is finished.

“Because the most frequent outcome is that the death penalty is overturned, that’s actually another reason why the conservatives say it’s a wasteful program,” Mr. Dunham said. “All the costs that went into that are for naught, because it was overturned. It doesn’t do what it was supposed to do.”

Ten inmates are on Nebraska’s death row, but the state has not held an execution since 1997. Like other states, Nebraska has had trouble obtaining lethal-injection drugs after its supply of sodium thiopental expired in December 2013, although Mr. Ricketts announced shortly before the vote in May that the state had purchased the necessary drugs from a supplier in India.

The ACLU of Nebraska released a poll by Prism Surveys showing that 58.5 percent support life in prison for murder convictions and 30 percent favor the death penalty. Even so, it’s clear that those who oppose the death penalty prefer not to take their chances at the ballot box.

State Sen. Beau McCoy, who co-chairs Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, said on Nebraska public television that even opponents of capital punishment are signing the petitions.

“I’ve talked to a number of them as well who, even though they don’t support the death penalty, believe Nebraskans should be afforded the opportunity to vote on this issue,” Mr. McCoy said.

The McCook Gazette called on voters in an editorial last month to resolve the issue once and for all by placing it on the ballot.

“Is the death penalty a real deterrent? Is the death penalty an appropriate means of administering justice? Should Nebraska abandon the death penalty just because it has difficulty carrying it out?” the editorial asked. “They’re all profound questions and it’s appropriate that voters have a say in providing the answers.”

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