On Wednesday, Nebraska’s unicameral and technically non-partisan legislature voted 32 to 15 to ban the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole. According to NPR, Republican Governor Pete Ricketts plans to veto the bill. If he does, a veto override vote is expected, possibly by next Tuesday. The New York Times notes that the Nebraska Legislature can override Governor Ricketts’ veto with just 30 votes.
Though 11 inmates currently wait to die on Nebraska’s death row, the state has not carried out an execution since 1997. The bill would not retroactively undo the death sentences previously handed down to those 11 inmates, but would take away the state’s power to carry out their executions.
Senator Ernie Chambers, the bill’s sponsor, told the Omaha World-Herald, “The record should be crystal clear on what it is we are doing. It is historic. We have the opportunity to take one small step for the Legislature, a giant leap for civilization.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, conservative Senator Laura Ebke explained why she voted to abolish the death penalty and said, “The faith that informed my personal views on the question of abortion, which says that life is endowed by God, couldn’t be reconciled in my mind with capital punishment when other means of punishment were available.” Many of Nebraska’s conservative legislators supported abolishing the death penalty on religious grounds.
Republican Senator Colby Coash, who was instrumental in changing some of his conservative colleague’s votes on the issue, described the moment he changed his opinion on the death penalty while attending an execution as a supporter of capital punishment. “There was a side there that thought it was a party, and they had a barbecue, and they had a countdown like it was New Year’s Eve… They had a band. Can you imagine that, colleagues? A band at an execution. And on the other side of the parking lot were people who were quietly praying, trying to be a witness to life, trying to understand how their government could end a life. And I was on the wrong side of that debate that night, and I never forgot it… The death penalty is not justice, it is revenge,” said Senator Coash.
Republican Senator Bill Kintner, a supporter of the death penalty, blamed the vote on a “liberal Legislature” and argued that death penalty opponents are out of touch with Nebraska voters.
The bill’s supporters believe that those senators who voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty will also vote to override Governor Ricketts’ veto. Governor Ricketts says he is lobbying the Legislature in an attempt to stop the veto override.
If Nebraska bans the death penalty, it will be the first red state to do so since 1973 when North Dakota abolished it.