Nebraska abolishes death penalty in landmark override vote

  • Reuters, Nebraska
  • Updated: May 28, 2015 13:10 IST

Nebraska became the first Republican-dominated state in more than 40 years to abolish capital punishment as legislators overrode the governor's veto of a bill repealing the death penalty.

The state's unicameral legislature voted 30-19, the exact number of votes needed to override Republican Governor Pete Ricketts' veto, to replace capital punishment with a term of life without parole.

Nebraska joined 18 other states and the District of Columbia in banning executions. It has not executed an inmate since 1997, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks capital punishment.

Members of Nebraska's officially nonpartisan legislature had cited religious reservations, the difficulty the state has in obtaining drugs used for lethal injections, the risk of wrongful convictions and unfair implementation in turning against executions.

Governor Ricketts, a death penalty supporter, vetoed the bill on Tuesday, calling capital punishment a deterrent. Nebraska recently purchased new drugs to be used in lethal injections and had 10 inmates on death row.

"My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families," Ricketts said in a statement after Wednesday's vote. Debate about executions has revived in recent years across the United States after a number of troubled lethal injections.

The number of prison inmates being put to death fell to 35, a 20-year low, in 2014, the Death Penalty Information Center said in its December report.

Prosecutors have said they are more cautious about taking on death penalty cases because of the high cost for trials and appeals. "We are a nation that is turning away from the death penalty," Danielle Conrad, executive director of Nebraska's American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

A shortage of drugs brought on by European pharmaceutical companies that do not want their products associated with executions has also made it harder for states to carry out lethal injections.

Republican lawmaker Jim Scheer voted to uphold the governor's veto, describing a bank robbery in his district where five people were killed. "I have seen bodies being carried out of a facility where a ruthless, premeditated action took place," Scheer said. "My pro-life stand is not for someone who has unilaterally, and meticulously and premeditatedly taken the life of another," he added.

But Democrat Matt Hansen, who supported the repeal, said "Everything we've seen and heard from studies in the past shows that at best the death penalty is applied arbitrarily."

The six states before Nebraska to abolish the death penalty since 2007 were Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey and New York, the Death Penalty Information Center said.

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