Legislature repeals death penalty

Senators passed a bill May 20 ending capital punishment in Nebraska.

Introduced by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, LB268 replaces death penalty provisions with a life sentence. The bill will apply retroactively to 11 inmates currently serving capital punishment sentences at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.

The effort to end capital punishment in Nebraska has been a career-long effort of Chambers’ since 1973. Chambers said he has never seen the level of support for repeal that he is witnessing now. Nebraska is on the cusp of a historical decision, he said.

“We have an opportunity to take one small step for the Legislature and one giant leap for civilization,” Chambers said. “Nebraska has a chance to step into history—on the right side of history, to take a step that will be beneficial to the advancement of civilized society which is showing its maturity and reflecting a humane sense of justice.”

Lawmakers passed the bill on a 32-15 vote after two hours of debate, the maximum allowed on final reading. Chambers’ motion to invoke cloture, or end debate and force the final vote on the bill, succeeded on a 34-14 vote.

The measure removes the Class I felony penalty designation from the state criminal code and makes first degree murder a Class IA felony punishable by life imprisonment. According to statute, a murder is considered a first degree offense if done purposely with deliberate and premeditated malice in the attempt of a first degree sexual assault, arson, robbery, kidnapping, hijacking, burglary or poisoning.

The bill also does not prevent a sentencing court from ordering restitution or alter the authority of the state Department of Correctional Services to determine appropriate measures for incarceration of an offender.

Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy introduced a motion to bracket the bill until April 16, 2016, saying the state’s most heinous criminals deserve the strongest punishment.

“All these years in Nebraska, we’ve kept the death penalty because, as the Legislature and as the people of this state, we’ve said the ultimate punishment should be reserved for those that have committed the worst of the worst offenses against all Nebraskans,” McCoy said.

Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue supported the bill, saying the appeals that follow a death penalty conviction keep cases in court for decades, which prolongs the pain suffered by victims’ family members.

“We need to think about more than just the person who commits these heinous crimes,” Crawford said.

Malcolm Sen. Ken Haar also supported the repeal, saying that ending capital punishment reflects national prison reform trends favoring more humane treatment of offenders.

“We need to take a civilized step forward and say the state will not execute people,” Haar said.

Speaking in support of the repeal, Hyannis Sen. Al Davis said the nation’s justice system makes too many mistakes to be trusted with executions.

“The state should not ever risk sending someone to death who might be innocent,” he said.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte disagreed, saying juries are perceptive enough to decide which crimes merit capital punishment.

“I trust them to do the right thing,” Groene said in opposition to the repeal.

After the successful cloture vote, senators rejected the bracket motion 14-31 and passed LB268.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has said that he intends to veto the bill. He has five days, excluding Sunday, to respond.

Thirty votes are needed to override a veto.

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