Nebraska becomes first red state to repeal the death penalty since 1973

On Wednesday, Nebraska lawmakers voted 30 to 19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto and abolish the death penalty.

Nati Harnik/AP
Neb. state Sen. Ernie Chambers, right, of Omaha, celebrates with Sen. Kathy Campbell, left, of Lincoln, after the one-house Legislature voted 30-19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican who supports the death penalty. The vote makes Nebraska the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the punishment since North Dakota in 1973.

Nebraska just became the first Republican-controlled state since 1973 to repeal the death penalty.

On Wednesday, Nebraska lawmakers voted 30 to 19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of their bill to repeal the death penalty. Exactly 30 votes were needed override the veto.

“Today we are doing something that transcends me, that transcends this Legislature, that transcends this state,” said Sen. Ernie Chambers, who sponsored the bill,  according to The New York Times. By his own estimate, he has tried to repeal the death penalty 37 times in his four decades as a Nebraska lawmaker.

Senator Chambers, an Independent who has repeatedly tried to repeal the death penalty, credited Republican lawmakers for overriding the veto, The Guardian reported. While officially nonpartisan, Nebraska's legislature is dominated by Republicans.

“I wish that I could say that it was my brilliance that brought us to this point, but this would not be true, and we all know it. Had not the conservative faction decided it was time for a change, there’s no way that what is happening today would be happening today,” he said.

Advocates say the bipartisan effort to repeal the death penalty, which was supported by some Republicans for religious and fiscal reasons, is indicative of a growing trend among the GOP. These Republicans have argued that the death penalty is costly and inefficient, with some calling it un-Christian.

"The efforts and arguments of Nebraska conservatives are part of an emerging trend in the Republican Party, evidenced by the involvement of conservative Republicans in legislative efforts to repeal the death penalty in other states, such as Kansas, Kentucky, South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming," Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said in a statement.

The shift among lawmakers in Nebraska may in part be due to the fact that 35 percent of the lawmakers are new: 17 new senators of the 49 who sit on the state’s single house legislature.

“Fourteen Republicans are among the new group of lawmakers and they have shown a willingness to buck old ideas on issues including the death penalty,” L.A. Times journalist Michael Muskal wrote.

“There’s a conservative pragmatism running through a lot of us,” Laura Ebke, a freshman Republican senator, told the LA Times.

Nebraska has executed three prisoners since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated nationwide. It has not executed anyone since 1997. The state will become the seventh state to abolish the death penalty in the past decade, and the 19th overall.

The state has come close to repealing the death penalty several times before Wednesday. Lawmakers voted to ban executions in 1979, but the governor vetoed the bill. In 1999, a temporary moratorium was also vetoed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and in 2007, a death penalty ban came one vote short of passing.

Not all Nebraska Republicans were behind the repeal, however.

“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” Governor Ricketts said in a statement. “While the Legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue.”

And state Sen. Beau McCoy announced the formation of Nebraskans for Justice, to explore the possibility of a ballot initiative that would let Nebraskans vote on whether to reinstate capital punishment, reported.

Ten prisoners are currently on Nebraska's death row. The bill essentially replaces the death penalty with life in prison.

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