"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Nebraska to Vote on Abolishing Death Penalty After Petition Drive Succeeds

Nebraska: The Good Life
More than four months after the Nebraska Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, a petition drive by supporters of capital punishment in the state has succeeded in upending that vote and suspending the new law, the secretary of state’s office announced Friday.

The petition drive, which collected more than 143,000 verified signatures from across the state, will force a statewide referendum in November 2016, when Nebraska voters will decide whether the state should have a death penalty.

The announcement was a clear victory for Gov. Pete Ricketts, a vigorous supporter of capital punishment and a major financial contributor to the petition effort. It was a blow to the coalition of legislators who argued in emotional hearings at the state Capitol in May that the death penalty system in Nebraska was inefficient, expensive and immoral.

But it also opened up new uncertainties surrounding the death penalty in Nebraska: With the repeal law suspended, would prosecutors once again seek the penalty when trying murder cases? Could the governor’s so far fruitless efforts to obtain lethal injection drugs succeed? And could an execution take place in the more than yearlong interim before the statewide referendum on the issue next November, as Nebraskans continue to be roiled by a debate over the death penalty?

“The thing is a total mess,” said Eric Berger, a law professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who has written extensively on capital punishment. “It’s uncharted territory for everybody.”

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts
Mr. Berger said that even the current status of the 10 men on death row — including whether they are legally on death row at all — could be seen as uncertain. “My guess is that this would ultimately be a losing argument,” he said, “but there’s at least a nonfrivolous argument that they could not be executed because their death sentences had been removed.”

Complicating matters further is a significant legal challenge that could invalidate the petition drive. In September, opponents of the death penalty filed a lawsuit against John Gale, the Nebraska secretary of state, arguing that Governor Ricketts should have been listed as a sponsor of the petition effort, as required by Nebraska law, given that he was a major financial contributor to the signature drive. The lawsuit says Governor Ricketts “personally and/or through his close advisers and agents managed, organized and controlled the referendum campaign.”

Governor Ricketts personally donated $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, the group that organized the petition drive.

The death penalty has not been used in Nebraska since 1997, partly a reflection of Nebraskans’ uncertainty about the measure, said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Source: New York Times, Julie Bosman, October 16, 2015

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