Nebraska Repeals The Death Penalty

Despite a veto from the state's Governor, today Nebraska became the latest state to repeal the death penalty. Hopefully, others will follow.

Death Chamber

As I noted last week, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, which, although it is officially non-partisan, is dominated by Republicans, voted overwhelmingly to repeal the death penalty in that state. To a large degree, the momentum that led to that vote appears to have been propelled by the ongoing nationwide controversies regarding the drug cocktail used in lethal injunctions, the problems that states such as Oklahoma have had in administering that cocktail, and the fact that the drug companies that make the drugs are becoming increasingly reluctant to sell those drugs to the states that still use the death penalty. In apparent anticipation of these problems, Nebraska’s Republican Governor Don Ricketts had taken it on himself to purchase an excess supply of the drugs in question even though his state has not actually executed anyone in nearly twenty years. Apparently partly prompted by this, a bipartisan group of legislators backed and led to passage a bill to repeal the death penalty in the state of Nebraska, which passed last week by a veto proof majority. This morning, as promised, Governor Ricketts vetoed the bill in a statement that accused the legislature of endangering public safety. The legislature responded this afternoon by overriding the Governor’s veto and making Nebraska the first conservative state to repeal the death penalty in 40 years:

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska on Wednesday became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, with lawmakers defying their Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, a staunch supporter of capital punishment who had lobbied vigorously against banning it.

By a 30 to 19 vote that cut across party lines, the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto on Tuesday of a bill repealing the state’s death penalty law. The measure garnered just enough votes to overcome the veto.

The vote at the State Capitol here capped a monthslong battle that pitted most lawmakers in the unicameral Legislature against the governor, many law enforcement officials and some family members of murder victims whose killers are on death row. The Legislature approved the repeal bill three times this year, each time by a veto-proof majority, before sending it to Mr. Ricketts’s desk.

Mr. Ricketts fought against the repeal bill by appearing repeatedly in television interviews and urging Nebraskans to pressure their senators to oppose it. On Tuesday, he signed a veto in front of reporters assembled at the Capitol and talked about a gruesome bank robbery in the city of Norfolk in 2002 in which five people were shot to death as a compelling reason that Nebraska should hold on to capital punishment. Two family members of a woman who was shot during the robbery stood at the governor’s side.

“It’s important to protect the safety of the public,” Mr. Ricketts said, adding that in his view, there was strong public support in Nebraska for keeping the death penalty. “The overwhelming number of constituents that I talk to want to retain the death penalty,” he said.

Though it formally considers itself nonpartisan, the Nebraska Legislature is dominated by Republicans. Republican legislators who have voted in favor of abolition said they believed the death penalty was inefficient, expensive and out of place with their party’s values. Other lawmakers cited religious or moral reasons for their support of the death penalty ban. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have banned the death penalty.

Some Nebraskans said in interviews this week that they agreed with the governor. In downtown Ceresco, Neb., about 18 miles north of Lincoln, Wayne Ambrosias, owner of the Sweet Pea Market, said he did not want his tax dollars used to pay for murderers to stay in prison for their entire lives. And he echoed the governor’s statement that the lawmakers who supported the death penalty repeal bill were out of touch with a widely conservative public.

“I don’t think the politicians are in line with the everyday people,” Mr. Ambrosias said on Wednesday just before the vote. “I think it’s more of a political move. I don’t think the people are telling them that’s what they want.”

But others said they saw the issue differently, rejecting the argument that the death penalty was necessary to deter crime.

“A lot of times murder is a crime of passion,” says Don Johnson, a retired commercial fisherman from Alaska now living in Ceresco. “I don’t think they think they think about the death penalty when they kill somebody or somebody gets killed. I don’t think it’s a preventative measure at all.”

Mr. Johnson, who considers himself an evangelical Protestant, said he sees the issue less as a religious belief than a strictly personal one. Other members of his church are in favor of the death penalty, he says, though he admits he cannot quite reconcile the punishment with Christianity.

“If you really follow Jesus’s teachings,” he said, “thou shall not kill, you know.”

Catholic bishops in Nebraska issued a statement on Tuesday criticizing Mr. Ricketts’s veto. “We remain convinced that the death penalty does not deter crime, nor does it make Nebraska safer or promote the common good in our state,” they said.

The bill replaces capital punishment with life imprisonment.

Since 2007, six states have abolished the death penalty: Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey. No conservative state has banned the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973.

The Omaha World Herald has more, including word of an effort to try to reverse the legislature

LINCOLN — Nebraska has repealed the death penalty following a dramatic vote Wednesday by state lawmakers to override the governor’s veto.

The high-stakes vote to override the veto of Legislative Bill 268 was 30-19. It requires at least 30 of 49 senators to overturn a gubernatorial veto.

The outcome represented a defeat for first-term Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who made an all-out effort to peel away some of 18 conservative senators who helped pass the repeal bill. Earlier in the session, lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto of a bill that raises the state gas tax.

And it represents a crowning achievement for Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has made repeal of the death penalty his top priority during his four-decade political career.

Immediately after the vote, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy announced the formation of “Nebraskans for Justice,” a group that will explore the possibility of a citizen-driven ballot initiative to let Nebraskans vote on reinstating the death penalty.

“With the formation of Nebraskans for Justice, I am standing with Nebraskans who are thoroughly disappointed with Nebraska legislators who voted to end Nebraska’s death penalty,” McCoy said. “Once again, Nebraska’s Legislature has gone against the wishes of an overwhelming number of Nebraskans who believe the death penalty should be in place for those who commit the most heinous crimes.”

Gretna Sen. John Murante switched his vote Wednesday and voted to sustain the governor’s veto.

“This has been the hardest issue that I have confronted during my time here in the Unicameral,” he said. “I pledged to do my best to vote the way the majority of my constituents want, and it has become obvious to me that the majority support Gov. Ricketts’ veto.”

Senators voted 32-15 a week ago to pass LB 268, which marked the most votes ever for a repeal measure in the Legislature. Leading up to the override vote, several senators said they had received hundreds of calls and emails both in support of the death penalty and in support of its demise.

The measure replaces lethal injection with a maximum punishment of life in prison. It will take effect in 90 days, which would be late August or early September depending upon when the Legislature adjourns.

Legal experts say the repeal erases the statutory means to carry out a death sentence in Nebraska, meaning the 10 men currently on death row will serve de facto life sentences.

As noted, the original repeal bill had passed the legislature by a 32-15 vote in its final test before the legislature last Friday, which was two voters more than the 30 that would be necessary to override an anticipated veto. In the days after that, Governor Ricketts and some other Nebraska Republicans made an all-out effort to lobby Republicans in the body to change the mind when it came time to vote to override the veto.. As it turned out, they were successful in getting two of those formerly “yes” votes to switch, but it wasn’t enough in the end. The dynamics of exactly how that happened may well be peculiar to Nebraska, but it serves as an example to legislators elsewhere that this is not necessarily the politically toxic issue that it may have been in the past. Indeed, while polling continues to show that most Americans support the death penalty, those numbers are much lower than they used to be and other polling has indicated that, given the choice, the public would support life in prison without parole over the death penalty. This is what the maximum sentence now is in those states that have repealed the death penalty, and it is effectively what that sentence has been in Nebraska for the past twenty years considering the fact that the state has not executed anyone since 1997.

The argument that Governor Ricketts made in his veto statement is, of course, little more than pure political pandering. Despite the arguments that advocates for capital punishment have made for decades now, there is simply no measurable deterrent effect that can be ascribed to the death penalty. Furthermore, it’s never been clear to me how sentencing someone to death gives any form of closure to the family of a crime victim, especially given the fact that a death sentence inevitably means years of appeals before there is anything approaching a final resolution. Additionally, it has been established in numerous studies that the death penalty actually ends up costing taxpayers more than keeping someone in prison for the rest of their life would cost, so there’s no real fiscal argument that can be made here. Add into all of this the very real risk of mistake, bias, and unfairness, as we’ve seen demonstrated in numerous cases over the years, and the arguments for the death penalty become less and less persuasive. That, it seems, it one of the main reasons why a conservative state like Nebraska was able to do this today. Hopefully, other states will follow their lead.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. argon says:

    Gov. Ricketts is a piece of work: Stockpiling drugs on the off-chance that the state may eventually execute prisoners. It’s like binge purchasing bread and milk when a storm is forecasted, but much, much more evil.

  2. Rob Prather says:

    This seems like a good outcome to me. I just hope a referendum doesn’t undo it, as was suggested in the story above.

  3. Rob Prather says:

    This is an interesting backstory to how this came about.

  4. James Pearce says:

    They haven’t executed anyone in 20 years? Then this is really just a formality.

    I would almost expect my state, Colorado, to follow suit, as it’s been 18 years since our last execution, but I think we’ll hold out for the execution of James Holmes. So I rather expect the issue to become a political football, punted around, until it ends with a Republican governor and James Holmes as the last man to receive the death penalty.

  5. bill says:

    “gen pop” works a little better, and is way more cost effective.

  6. Hal_10000 says:

    Ironically, it’s my conservatism that has led me to oppose the death penalty. It’s a waste of money. It drags out the process. And, fundamentally, I don’t trust government to always execute the right guy. At least if we falsely imprison someone, we can let them and apologize (kinda).

  7. Rob Prather says:


    I don’t trust government to always execute the right guy.

    This strikes me as very sensible and I basically felt this way back when I was on the right in the early 2000s. (I did, however, have a problem with the courts striking it down themselves, but that doesn’t bother me anymore.)

  8. Tony W says:

    The troubling part for me is that the governor still felt it was advantageous to grandstand and veto the bill, knowing full well he’d be doing so in vain. This is progress, but the cynically orchestrated red-meat theatrics diluted the message.

  9. Franklin says:

    @Hal_10000: All those reasons, plus the fact that it is seemingly not applied fairly with regard to race or wealth. Basically, I’m not against it in principle (if there could be no doubt about guilt, etc.), but it is simply unworkable in practice.

    Anyway, I see it as a great sign that a red state overrode a veto to do the right thing.

  10. Tyrell says:

    One problem with the “life sentence without the possibility of parole” is that there is always the chance of escape.

  11. Tillman says:

    @Tyrell: The track record of escapes from federal prison versus the track record of innocent people executed by the state suggests abolishing the death penalty is a risk worth taking.

    Hell, maybe some innocent people escape. Always a chance.

  12. Jonathan says:

    Why does Ricketts cite a 2002 bank robbery as evidence to KEEP the death penalty? It was in place at the time and did not deter the crime. Those convicted, and I am assuming someone was convicted, have not been executed. So…there was a gruesome crime that was committed in spite of the death penalty being in place and we haven’t executed those responsible, so we need to keep it because…reasons?

  13. Tyrell says:

    @Tillman: How about those who confess ? In those cases the issue of innocence is negated.
    There have been murderers who escaped to kill again!

  14. de stijl says:


    How about those who confess ? In those cases the issue of innocence is negated.

    You really need to educate yourself on how police obtain / coerce confessions.

  15. george says:


    And, fundamentally, I don’t trust government to always execute the right guy. At least if we falsely imprison someone, we can let them and apologize (kinda).

    Yup. I’m amazed that anyone trusts the government that far. The argument that its a jury of 12 doesn’t help at all – first of all because the whole court procedure, starting with the police, is run by the gov’t, secondly because who in the world would trust 12 more or less normal people chosen by the gov’t to decide on life and death.

    Would you allow those 12 people to choose the career or education of your child? Your investment portfolio? If not, how in the world can they be trusted with taking a person’s life?

    It always comes down to the same thing for me. If you don’t trust the gov’t with relatively simple things like regulating business and the environment, there’s no way to trust them with the much more complex and serious matter of taking away a citizen’s life.

  16. Tillman says:


    There have been murderers who escaped to kill again!

    Sure, but how many prisoners as a percentage of the population escape? Then, how many prisoners in that specific group as a percentage of the population are convicted murderers? Then, how many prisoners in that specific group as a percentage of the population murder again during their escaped time?

    I don’t want to do the research myself because I’m lazy, but my bet is in the last century I could count the number of those specific “recidivists” on my fingers and toes.

    “They’ve got a name for people like you Hi. That name is called ‘recidivism.'”
    “Repeat offender!”
    “Not a pretty name, is it Hi?”
    >No, sir. That’s one bonehead name, but that ain’t me any more.
    “You’re not just telling us what we want to hear?”
    >No, sir, no way.
    “‘Cause we just want to hear the truth.”
    >Well, then I guess I am telling you what you want to hear.
    “Boy, didn’t we just tell you not to do that?”
    >Yes, sir.
    “… Okay, then.”

  17. Rob Prather says:

    @Tillman: kudos for the Raising Arizona quote.

  18. george says:

    When I think about it, the weirdest thing is not trusting the gov’t to run health care, but trusting it to take a person’s life.

    Talk about straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

  19. Ed says:

    My argument against the death penalty is simple: It is just creepy that somebody could get killed just because of some legal action of the state. Even with a jury decision, in the end it is somebody in government signing a paper that passes through layers of bureaucracy, eventually ending in a clinical act by a government employee or contractor.. Just creepy. And it is hard for me to believe this clinical act and the years of decision making leading up to it makes anybody else’s life better.