Nebraska governor confronts GOP legislature on death penalty repeal

Gov. Pete Ricketts will need to flip three votes or Nebraska’s Republican-controlled legislature will override his veto

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts followed through on his promise to veto legislation that would repeal the death penalty Tuesday afternoon, setting the stage for a showdown with fellow Republicans who voted three times to end capital punishment in the state.

Under the state’s distinct legislative process, each bill is debated and voted on three times in the unicameral legislature. Legislative Bill 268, which would eliminate the death penalty in Nebraska, went through the final round of voting late last week and was granted final passage in a 32-15 vote, in a chamber controlled by Republicans.

But Ricketts’ staunch opposition to repeal illustrates that even as more conservatives are rethinking the issue of capital punishment on fiscal and moral grounds, powerful holdouts remain who align with the law-and-order Republicans of previous generations.

Ricketts made an emotional appeal Tuesday to retain the punishment, appearing at a press conference with family members of Evonne Tuttle, a woman murdered in a bank robbery in 2002 whose convicted killers are currently on death row.

“This is a matter of public safety,” he said. “We need to have strong sentencing. We need to be sure our prosecutors have the tools to put these hardened criminals behind bars.”  

Only 30 state senators are needed to override the veto, but Ricketts said he plans to aggressively lobby lawmakers in order to flip three votes. The override vote is expected Wednesday afternoon.

The protracted debate over the issue in Nebraska showcased the varied reasons that many conservatives, who for many years have largely supported the death penalty, changed their minds on the issue in recent years.

An April Gallup poll showed that support for the death penalty among Republicans has declined 10 percentage points over the last 20 years, from 87 percent in 1996. Support in the general population has fallen even more dramatically, from 78 percent in 1995 to 56 percent this year. Moreover, repeal efforts have attracted conservative support in several states, including Kansas, Kentucky and South Dakota.

“I’m pro-life from conception until when God calls somebody home,” said state Sen. Tommy Garrett, according to The Omaha World Herald. “I’m not going to quibble over innocent life versus those who are guilty for what they have done. This is a matter of conscience.”

Others came to the issue from a practical standpoint. Republican state Sen. Mike Gloor, a former supporter of the death penalty who voted in favor of repeal, noted that Nebraska has not executed anyone since 1997.

“The state of Nebraska has capital punishment in name only. I was not convinced in previous years, but as the proof has mounted year by year, my position has changed,” he wrote in an editorial in a local newspaper.

Nebraska would be the first conservative state to repeal the death penalty since North Dakota abolished the punishment in 1973. Thirty-two states currently have the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

If lawmakers are successful, it would send a powerful signal to the rest of country, said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who noted the eroding support for capital punishment around the country.  

“Nebraska has shown the way. Nebraska has shown it is safe for conservatives to openly oppose the death penalty and that they can successfully repeal,” he said. “Conservative Republicans are beginning to look at the death penalty as a government program as opposed to simply asking, ‘Is it justifiable?’ in the abstract. And when they look at the death penalty as a government program, they’re saying, ‘This offends our conservative values.’”

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