- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A group that is urging voters not to reinstate Nebraska’s death penalty argued Wednesday that the state’s 10 death-row inmates will die in prison regardless of what happens in the November election.

The comments at a Capitol news conference came as the anti-death-penalty group Retain a Just Nebraska prepares a series of cable and radio ads that will start airing next month. Death penalty opponents said the Legislature’s vote to abolish capital punishment last year still guarantees a life-without-parole sentence for those prisoners.

The group formed after death penalty supporters gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the general election ballot, giving voters the opportunity to overturn the Legislature’s decision. The group Nebraskans for the Death Penalty plans to campaign for the measure, urging voters to repeal the new law.

Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who is a Republican against the death penalty, said he believes voters will keep capital punishment off the books once they receive the same information that he and other lawmakers reviewed.

Coash said the death penalty wastes tax dollars, is virtually impossible to carry out because of legal challenges and limited access to the right drugs and creates false hope for victims’ families because the sentence is never carried out.

Nebraska’s last execution was in 1997 and used the electric chair. The state has struggled to obtain all three of the drugs required for its current lethal injection protocol.

“No matter what happens with the vote in November, the system will remain broken,” Coash said.

Democratic state Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said the only way death-row inmates could qualify for parole is if the state’s pardons board commuted their sentences. The pardons board is comprised of Gov. Pete Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson - both death penalty supporters - and Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale.

“Two of three of those individuals have to agree to let somebody out of prison,” Morfeld said.

Retired District Court Judge Ronald Reagan, who is working with death penalty opponents, said a life sentence “means exactly that” in Nebraska and the chances of a commutation are slim.

“It’s a remote, remote possibility that people shouldn’t be concerned about,” Reagan said.

Death penalty supporters have pointed to the case of Laddie Dittrich, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 1973 but became eligible for parole after the pardons board took the rare step of commuting his life sentence in 2013. Seven months after his release, Dittrich was arrested and later convicted of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl.

“The claim that they can guarantee that an inmate will never be released is simply wrong,” said Bob Evnen, a Lincoln attorney and co-founder of the Nebraskans for the Death Penalty. “The pardons board is a very powerful body, and its decisions are unreviewable. It’s ridiculous to make that claim.”

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty spokesman Chris Peterson said his group will start campaigning in the next few weeks.

“I expect a strong message will be sent by voters about their desire to keep capital punishment,” Peterson said.


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