Senators override veto; death penalty repealed

Lawmakers abolished capital punishment in Nebraska following a narrowly successful veto override May 27.

LB268, introduced by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, replaces death penalty provisions with a life sentence. The bill applies to 10 inmates currently serving capital punishment sentences at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. An 11th death row inmate, Michael Ryan, died in prison of natural causes May 24. He had been on death row since 1986.

The bill was passed by the Legislature May 20 on a 32-15 vote, but Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed it May 26.

Chambers offered a motion to override the governor’s veto, saying the repeal finally would lift the “cloud of darkness” over the state caused by the use of capital punishment.

“This will be a shining moment for the Nebraska Legislature,” Chambers said. “I am hoping that we will be that motive force in this country that will ultimately result in the abolition of state killing.”

The effort to end capital punishment in Nebraska has been a career-long effort of Chambers’ since 1973.

In his veto message to the Legislature, Ricketts said repealing the death penalty is counter to the beliefs of an overwhelming majority of Nebraskans who support it as an important public safety tool. The death penalty is necessary to provide justice to the families of victims of especially heinous and violent crimes, Ricketts said.

“Your decision will determine whether the families of victims of ten murderers on Nebraska’s death row will ever receive the justice they deserve,” Ricketts wrote, “which was meted out by a very deliberate and cautious judicial process in each of their cases.”

In her support of the motion to override the veto, Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford disputed the claim that the death penalty is good for victims’ families. In states without the death penalty, she said, studies show that victims’ families fare better psychologically than those in death penalty states because they do not have to relive the crimes throughout the offenders’ lengthy appeals process.

“The death penalty does not bring closure and healing,” Crawford said.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said the state should set an example based on justice, not vengeance. Justice can be provided with a life sentence, he said in support of repealing the death penalty.

“If we give the state the right to take a life, then what kind of message does that send to our society?” Morfeld said.

Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer was in favor of retaining the death penalty. Those convicted of heinous, premeditated murder deserve the ultimate punishment, he said.

“I believe there is a time and a place for the death penalty in Nebraska,” he said.

Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy agreed, saying that without the death penalty, the lives of murder victims are devalued by a lack of justice.

“I’ll always rise to defend the death penalty as the ultimate punishment for those who have committed the worst crimes possible against their fellow Nebraskans,” McCoy said.

Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln said that Nebraska’s prolonged inability to procure the chemicals needed to carry out executions shows that capital punishment is no longer a viable way to punish the state’s worst criminals.

“The taxpayers have not gotten their bang for their buck for almost 20 years. This program is broken,” he said. “When are we going to admit that we have a broken system that will not work?”

Bellevue Sen. Tommy Garrett also supported the override motion. He said the justice system is too flawed to give the state the power to kill its citizens, so the death penalty is not worth the risk.

“I can think of no greater injustice than government taking the life of an innocent man or woman,” Garrett said.

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 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.

Senators voted 30-19 to override the governor’s veto. Thirty votes were needed.

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