Nati Harnik / AP

Nebraska legislature leads charge to abolish death penalty

If bill overcomes veto threat, Nebraska will be the first GOP-dominated state in decades to end capital punishment

Nebraska’s Republican-dominated legislature is leading the charge to abolish the death penalty in the state, potentially making it the first GOP-controlled state in decades to ban the practice and setting up a confrontation with Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts.

State lawmakers approved Legislative Bill 268 late last week, which would replace the death penalty with life without parole, in a lopsided 30-13 vote, enough to overcome Ricketts’ promised veto if support holds. Backers of the bill, including several Republican advocates, are now trying to wrangle additional supporters to overcome the remaining legislative hurdles. Two more rounds of voting must take place under the rules of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature — the only one of its kind in the nation — and 33 state senators may be needed to break debate at the next stage.

“I’m actually very optimistic that we can get the votes we need for cloture to end the filibuster,” said Stacy Anderson, the executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, an advocacy group that has been lobbying legislators on the issue. “There are senators in the body who don’t support the repeal, but they support this being given an up-or-down vote. They believe a vote should be taken.”

The rejection of the death penalty in Nebraska shows that more Republican lawmakers at the state level feel free to express their qualms about capital punishment and champion abolishment efforts. Similar legislation has been introduced in Kansas and Arkansas, but in those states, the bills have not made it out of committee.

“It makes sense for Republicans to support repeal. It’s antithetical to life,” said Marc Hyden, the director of the national group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “What’s happening in Nebraska is what we’re seeing nationwide — more and more people are seeing the death penalty as a broken system that doesn’t line up with their values.” 

If the proposal succeeds in Nebraska, it will be the first solidly red state to abolish capital punishment in decades. (Blue states Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland repealed the death penalty in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively.) In 32 states, however, executions are still legal, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

“There’s strong conservative leadership in the body to actually get the repeal bill passed,” Anderson said. “We’re in a race with several states to be the first red state repeal, so I think it’s just a matter of time before we see that happening.” 

Although Nebraska’s legislature is officially nonpartisan and elected officials run for office without party affiliation, the party IDs of lawmakers are widely known. In the death penalty vote, 17 Republicans joined 12 Democrats and one independent to advance the bill.

State Sen. Al Davis, a Republican who supports the bill, said that the unique nature of the Nebraska legislature has allowed the issue to transcend hardened partisanship.

“The people that serve here are not reliant on a party to tell them how to vote,” he said. “This bill has come up and is making that kind of progress because people are free from their party obligations. We’re able to talk these things through from our own experiences and perspectives.”

Davis said that he came to oppose the death penalty when he was made aware of cases in which false confessions were extracted from defendants after they were threatened with the death penalty by prosecutors.

“I thought, ‘Boy, this is really not an appropriate punishment, because there’s no way to take it back,” he said. 

Sen. Ernie Chambers, an independent who sponsored the bill and who is the only African-American serving in the state legislature, has been introducing similar legislation intermittently for more than 40 years, since he was first elected in 1970. The politics have changed dramatically in that time, he said. If Nebraska is the first Midwestern state in a generation to abolish capital punishment, he hopes others will follow. 

“There were senators who told me if they could vote their conviction, we would’ve been rid of the death penalty a long time ago,” he said. “If Nebraska is viewed as backward, as it really is, and it would take this step, there could be people who say, ‘If those people did it, everybody should be able to do it.’”

Nonetheless, the bill faces stiff opposition from Ricketts and the state attorney general, who will be fighting the repeal and lobbying lawmakers. Legislators opposed to the bill have been strident in their views, saying they will erect any roadblocks they can to prevent the legislation from being enacted.

“Sen. Chambers’ plan to repeal the death penalty is out of step with Nebraskans who tell me that they believe the death penalty remains an important tool for public safety,” Ricketts said in a statement shortly after last week’s vote. “If this legislation comes to my desk, I will veto it. I urge senators to reconsider their decision and to stand with law enforcement who need all the tools we can give them to protect public safety.”

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