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Nebraska's Death Penalty Repealed With Veto Override

Nebraska became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, as lawmakers voted to override the governor's veto.
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Nebraska became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty on Wednesday when lawmakers boldly voted 30-19 to override the governor's veto.

There are 10 inmates on Nebraska's death row — the 11th died this week — but the state has not executed anyone since 1997 and only recently ordered the drugs necessary to carry out a lethal injection. It's the 19th state to abolish capital punishment.

Lawmakers across the political spectrum came together to pass a repeal bill three times. Gov. Pete Ricketts, a first-term Republican, then vetoed the legislation on Tuesday. Thirty senators were needed to override him.

“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 the defeat.

The override vote was preceded by hours of debate — with opponents and proponents quoting Bible passages and reading emails from constituents to support their position.

"The death penalty in Nebraska is broken. It's time to repeal it," said Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, a Democrat, who voted to end capital punishment.

Sen. Joni Craighead, who backed the death penalty, asked opponents to put themselves in the shoes of murder victims' families.

"What if someone who you loved dearly was brutally murdered? If you can honestly say in that situation that sure, that murderer can live their life in prison ... then you are truly a death penalty opponent. I respect that, but I don't agree with you."

Nebraska is the first Republican controlled state in the U.S. to abolish capital punishment since North Dakota did so in 1973.

The repeal comes at a moment of turmoil for the death penalty: the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to issue a major decision on a lethal-injection drug that was used in several botched or troubled executions, and states across the country are having trouble obtaining the chemicals.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield suggested the repeal would be short-lived and that legislation would be put forth in the next session to put it on the ballot.

But death-penalty opponents hailed the vote as a harbinger of change beyond Nebraska's borders.

“Americans have been moving away from executions for more than ten years, but now we have a red state turning that trend into law for the first time in 40 years," said Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA.

"Nebraska has shown the nation what happens when you put aside partisan politics and embrace simple common sense. The death penalty was already on its last legs, but it's hard to imagine that it has any staying power left after this.”

A bill to end capital punishment has been put forth in Nebraska's unicameral legislature every year, but this year a growing movement of conservatives who oppose executions gave it new momentum.

“I’m not surprised that conservatives led the death penalty repeal effort in Nebraska. I think this will become more common," Marc Hyden of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty said in a statement, adding that the death penalty violates what he called "the core conservative principles of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and valuing life."