- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Death penalty supporters are preparing to challenge Nebraska’s repeal of capital punishment through the courts and on the campaign trail.

The office of Attorney General Doug Peterson said Thursday that it plans to challenge part of the law that effectively changed the sentences of Nebraska’s 10 current death row prisoners to life in prison. Attorneys plan to argue that the law violates the state constitution, which gives the Board of Pardons exclusive power to change final sentences.

The attorney general’s office cited a portion of the law that says: “It is the intent of the Legislature that in any criminal proceeding in which the death penalty has been imposed but not carried out prior to the effective date of this act, such penalty shall be changed to life imprisonment.”

“We believe this stated intent is unconstitutional,” the office said in the statement.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, the new law’s sponsor, said his measure makes clear that the Legislature isn’t changing the sentences. Chambers said the law merely removes the death penalty as a punishment, meaning the state has no legal way to carry out executions. So-called intent language doesn’t carry the force of law, he said.

Chambers said it’s up to the Department of Correctional Services to decide whether the men remain on death row.

The attorney general’s announcement came one day after state Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha announced the formation of a new group, Nebraskans for Justice, which will look into a citizen-led ballot initiative to reinstate capital punishment.

Nebraska’s referendum process allows citizens to suspend a law if they can collect signatures from 10 percent of the state’s registered voters - roughly 115,000 people - in the 90 days before the law goes into effect.

Death penalty supporters also have the option to gather signatures from 5 percent of Nebraska’s registered voters, which would place the issue on the ballot but wouldn’t keep the law from going into effect.

In either case, voters would decide the death penalty’s fate during the next statewide election in 2016.

McCoy said he would prefer a third option that would give organizers more time: a petition drive for a constitutional amendment to restore the ultimate punishment. Citizens can propose a law for the ballot if they gather signatures from 7 percent of registered voters, and a constitutional amendment if they collect signatures from 10 percent of registered voters. Petitions would have to be submitted to Nebraska’s Secretary of State by July 2016.

“I would like to see this enshrined in the constitution so that it can’t be removed by a future Legislature without a vote of the people,” McCoy said Thursday. “That’s certainly a process we’re likely to explore. But we’re going to look at all of the options.”

Chambers said Wednesday that McCoy was within his rights, but said he doubts it will succeed.

“He won’t get to first base with it,” Chambers said.

A spokesman for Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who vetoed the repeal bill but was overridden, declined to say whether the Republican governor would endorse a ballot campaign.

But spokesman Taylor Gage said the administration has no plans to try to cancel a shipment of lethal injection drugs that the state purchased this month. Ricketts announced the purchase the evening before the second of three required death-penalty votes in the Legislature.

Putting the death penalty on the ballot would likely require an organized and well-financed campaign to gather enough signatures. Last year, the group Nebraskans for Better Wages campaign spent nearly $1.5 million on its ballot drive and subsequent campaign to raise the minimum wage.

Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, a death penalty opponent who led the minimum wage effort, questioned whether the issue of capital punishment would attract enough donors for a sustained ballot drive.

“I think there are a lot of other causes that people would put their money behind first,” Nordquist said.

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