The Legislature took it away. But on Tuesday, Nebraska voters handed back execution as an option for judges and juries to consider for the most heinous murders.
Even as support for the death penalty among states is said to be waning -- the lowest it has been in decades, according to a Pew Research Center poll -- Nebraska voters said by a convincing margin they want to keep it.
A 100,000-plus vote margin, considered a landslide, reinforces that the vast majority of Nebraskans want the death penalty option, said Nebraskans for the Death Penalty spokesman Chris Peterson.
Bob Evnen, who has worked for the past 17 months on behalf of repealing the law, said he hopes the unicameral Legislature will respect the will of the people and cooperate with the governor to establish a successful, humane method of carrying out the death penalty.
"We also hope that the judiciary will look for ways to end interminable appeals while maintaining the due process rights of defendants," he said. "We know that this can happen, because it happens in other states."
Stephen Griffith, director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said Nebraskans across the political spectrum worked together to call for its end.
"But it's still a broken system," he said. "And we look forward to continuing this conversation with Nebraskans."
Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has worked more than 40 years to eliminate capital punishment, said Monday the circumstances that led him to fight for the repeal of the death penalty had a hiatus with the Legislature's action. With the return of those circumstances, he plans to renew his efforts.
"And I will have a bill to repeal the death penalty ready for introduction in January," he said.
Nebraska's Catholic bishops said they, too, will continue to call for repeal of the death penalty.
The referendum, which gained more than enough signatures in summer 2015 to get the question on the ballot, passed despite being outspent nearly 5-to-1 by the opposition, Peterson said.
The Retain A Just Nebraska campaign spent about $2.2 million compared to about $450,000 by the referendum campaign.
Even with a green light to put the death penalty back into play, opponents believe it will be a long time, if ever, before an execution takes place. 10 men are on death row, most with remaining appeals.
The last time Nebraska executed a man was in 1997. The state has since put its electric chair in storage because its use was found to be unconstitutional by the Nebraska Supreme Court. Lethal injection has become the execution protocol, but has never been used and the state has had trouble getting the necessary drugs.
Lincoln attorney and longtime death penalty opponent Alan Peterson said several legal issues could prevent any potential execution.
For one, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a Florida case the U.S. Constitution requires juries to make those decisions. In Nebraska, judges decide one or more statements of fact in death penalty sentencing.
"These and other issues may take years to resolve, and the lack of acceptable lethal drugs is just one of many additional barriers to Nebraska killing anyone for a long time, if ever," Alan Peterson said.
Officials have said they are working on a new drug protocol that would allow the state to carry out the death penalty, but many opponents say that's unlikely because of the difficulty in getting the drugs.
Gov. Pete Ricketts dug into his own bank account to donate $300,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty. His father, Joe, donated another $100,000.
On Friday, the governor said that over the past several weeks, he has stepped up conversations with Attorney General Doug Peterson and Corrections Director Scott Frakes about a thorough review of the capital punishment protocols used in other states.
"My administration will continue to review potential protocol changes," Ricketts said.
Source: Lincoln Journal Star, November 9, 2016
Nebraskans vote overwhelmingly to restore death penalty, nullify historic 2015 vote by state Legislature
Nebraskans wielded their veto power on Tuesday, voting overwhelmingly to restore the death penalty and nullify a historic 2015 vote by state lawmakers to repeal capital punishment.
Rural voters carried the day, voting to "repeal the repeal" by margins as large as 4-to-1 in counties outside Lincoln and Omaha.
Douglas County, seen as a key stronghold of death-penalty opposition, appeared to narrowly support restoring the death penalty, while Lancaster County was the only county in the state to support retaining the death penalty repeal.
Officials with Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said Tuesday's vote affirmed their belief that if voters were given the chance, they would vote to keep the death penalty for the most heinous murders.
"The Legislature made a big mistake on a very important issue," said Bob Evnen of Lincoln, a co-founder of the pro-capital punishment group, which conducted the successful petition drive that placed the death penalty referendum on Tuesday's ballot.
State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a leader with the anti-death penalty group, Retain a Just Nebraska, said he was disappointed with the outcome but not the effort.
"This debate was worth having," Coash said.
Some voters, he said, may have been swayed by recent, high-profile murders, citing the case of Nikko Jenkins, who killed 4 people in Omaha shortly after his release from prison in 2013. A trial this fall in Omaha, which ended with Dr. Anthony Garcia being found guilty of the gruesome slayings of four people connected to Creighton University's pathology department, also was a factor, he said.
"It's really hard to look at those kinds of crimes and not have an emotional response," Coash said.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who sponsored the bill to repeal the death penalty, said Tuesday night that the vote demonstrated to him that Nebraska remains a "hidebound and backward state."
"I have been in this activity too long to be surprised by what happened tonight," he said. "It will not dishearten me, it will not deter me."
Chambers said he would be introducing a new bill in January to get rid of the death penalty.
Tuesday's vote marked the 2nd time lawmakers had been rebuffed in an effort to repeal the death penalty. In 1979, then-Gov. Charlie Thone vetoed a repeal bill, and the Legislature lacked the votes to override it.
Nebraska, a conservative, law-and-order state, gained the national spotlight after the Legislature's landmark vote and subsequent narrow override of a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
At the time of the repeal vote, Nebraska stood as the 2st conservative state to do away with capital punishment since North Dakota in 1973. A group of conservative senators, citing the high cost of the death penalty and its rare use, joined with Chambers in voting to repeal the ultimate penalty.
But the victory proved short-lived.
Shortly after the Legislature's vote, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty formed to put the issue before the state's voters.
Using contributions from the governor, his parents and others, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty collected more than 143,000 signatures of voters during the summer of 2015.
Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs and the online brokerage firm TD Ameritrade donated $300,000 of his own money to aid the pro-death penalty group, according to the most recent campaign spending reports. His father, Joe, pitched in $100,000, and his mother, Marlene, donated $25,000.
Those donations were among the $1.3 million spent through early November by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.
Retain a Just Nebraska also got some high-profile help, collecting $2.7 million through mid-October. Its contributors included Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon, who gave $1,500. One of its major donors was a Massachusetts organization, the Proteus Action League, which gave $650,000 this year and $600,000 last year.
Death penalty opponents also argued capital punishment could possibly take an innocent person's life. They pointed to the case of the Beatrice 6, in which 6 people were wrongly convicted in the 1985 rape and slaying of a Beatrice woman. Several of the 6 said their fear of the death penalty factored into their decision to falsely confess.
A group of retired judges was among those calling for an end to capital punishment, but death penalty supporters countered with their own group of Nebraska sheriffs and prosecutors who said that for the most heinous crimes, death was the most appropriate sentence.
"It's not about vengeance, it's about justice," said Pierce County Sheriff Rick Eberhardt, who collected more than 3,000 signatures to help put the death penalty referendum on the ballot.
On Tuesday night, the sheriff sat quietly in a meeting room at Omaha's Marriott Regency Hotel with 3 members of the family of Evonne Tuttle, who was shot and killed along with 4 others during a botched bank robbery in Norfolk in 2002. The 3 gunmen all are on Nebraska's death row.
It wasn't a celebration, said Eberhardt and the others, but affirmation that the state's residents still support the death penalty.
"It was the right thing to do," said Christine Tuttle, Evonne's 32-year-old daughter, of Tuesday's vote.
"We're going to get justice. It's going to happen," said Evonne's mother, Vivian, of Ewing, Nebraska.
Evnen said he hoped the significant margin in favor of restoring the death penalty would convince state lawmakers that they need to work with Ricketts, instead of against him, to adopt a new death penalty protocol.
Coash, however, said that Tuesday's vote hasn't changed a thing. Nebraska, he said, still lacks the drugs needed to carry out a lethal injection execution.
"It doesn't fix the problems that the Legislature saw," he said.
Source: Omaha World-Herald, November 9, 2016
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