LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts was proven right.
Nebraskans, he has said over and over, support the death penalty and, if given the chance, would reverse the Nebraska Legislature’s decision to repeal capital punishment in 2015.
On Tuesday, voters backed up the governor’s prediction and repealed a law enacted by state lawmakers, thus restoring capital punishment.
The vote ends a protracted battle over a life-and-death issue that put Nebraska, a conservative, law-and-order state, in the national spotlight after the Legislature’s landmark vote and subsequent narrow override of Ricketts’ veto.
"This debate was worth having," said State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who played a key role in passing the repeal legislation. "There was a lot of thought and discernment on this issue."
At the time of the repeal vote, Nebraska stood as the first 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 longtime capital punishment foe State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha in voting to repeal the ultimate penalty.
But the victory was short-lived.
Shortly after the Legislature’s vote, a group supporting the death penalty formed to put the issue before the state’s voters.
Using contributions from the governor, his father and others, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty collected more than 143,000 signatures of voters during the summer of 2015 to put a referendum on capital punishment on Tuesday’s ballot.
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 during its 1 1/2-year campaign to get the issue on the ballot.
Coash said he wasn't disappointed with the effort but with the outcome. People, he said, may have been swayed by recent slayings and a recent high-profile murder trial in Omaha.
He cited the cases of Nikko Jenkins, who killed four people in Omaha upon his release from prison, and Dr Anthony Garcia. who was recently found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder.
"A lot of people thought about this issue with their hearts," he said. "It's really hard to look at those kinds of crimes and not have an emotional response."
An anti-death penalty group, Retain a Just Nebraska, also got some high-profile help for its campaign, which collected $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 argued capital punishment is an archaic, immoral and expensive punishment that could possibly take an innocent person’s life. They pointed to the case of the Beatrice Six in which six people were wrongly convicted in the 1985 rape and murder of a Beatrice woman. Several of the six 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 with three members of the family of Evonne Tuttle, who was shot and killed along with four others during a botched bank robbery in Norfolk in 2002. The three 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, who has driven more than 9,000 in support of the death penalty since the Legislature repealed capital punishment in 2015.
Source: Omaha World-Herald, Paul Hammel, November 8, 2016
Nebraska: Uncertainty looms over death penalty vote
Voters will have an opportunity Tuesday to reverse an action taken by the Legislature and reinstate Nebraska's death penalty, but moving forward with executions could take years.
Nebraska's last execution was in 1997, using the electric chair, and the state has never carried one out using its current three-drug lethal injection protocol. Even though several executions have been scheduled, legal and logistical problems have kept the state from using lethal injection before the necessary drugs expired.
Nebraska lawmakers abolished the death penalty in May 2015 over Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto. Supporters of the punishment responded with a citizen-led petition drive partially financed by Ricketts that suspended the Legislature's decision until voters decide the issue Tuesday.
Voting "retain" will uphold the Legislature's decision and replace the death penalty with life in prison, while voting "repeal" will reinstate capital punishment.
Death penalty supporters say Nebraska can overcome the hurdles as other states have recently done. One example is Ohio, where officials announced last month they would resume executions in 2017 after changing their three-drug lethal injection protocol, said Chris Peterson, a spokesman for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.
But Ohio, Texas and other states have moved forward only because they shrouded their processes in secrecy, passing laws that require officials to withhold the names of drug manufacturers, said Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a leading death penalty opponent. Nebraska lawmakers have traditionally avoided that approach, erring on the side of transparency.
"Nebraskans don't want their government hiding things from them," Coash said. "If pharmaceutical companies want to make drugs that kill people, they ought to stand behind that."
Without a secrecy law, Coash said he doubts Nebraska will ever carry out an execution. The death penalty opposition campaign, Retain a Just Nebraska, has argued that no inmate will be executed even if voters reinstate the punishment.
"It puts it back on the books, but it doesn't mean we get the drugs," Coash said. "It doesn't mean executions begin on Nov. 10."
Death penalty proponents say strong support by voters will increase pressure on public officials to find a workable execution method.
"The obstacles are not insurmountable," said Bob Evnen, a Lincoln attorney who has worked with Nebraskans for the Death Penalty. "Other states are able to carry out the death penalty. Our state can, too."
Evnen said it's impossible to know when they state might be able to carry out an execution, but he noted officials came close eight years ago when they were on the verge of scheduling executions for inmates Carey Dean Moore and Ray Mata. Their executions were delayed when the Nebraska Supreme Court declared the electric chair unconstitutional.
The state's corrections department spent $54,400 last year on foreign-made lethal injection drugs but has not received them because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration blocked the shipment. State officials agreed to buy the drugs from Chris Harris, a distributor in India who contacted the corrections department in April 2015 as lawmakers were debating whether to abolish the death penalty. Ricketts announced he was suspending the effort to obtain the drugs until voters decided whether to keep capital punishment.
Harris sold execution drugs to the state in 2010, but the drugs' manufacturer accused him of misrepresenting how he intended to use them. Legal challenges prevented the state from using the drugs before they expired.
Both sides of the issue made their final push before the election with radio and television ads and through social media. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty sent more than 250,000 mailings to voters urging them to keep the punishment, Peterson said.
"The other side has thrown everything including the kitchen sink to try to eliminate the death penalty, but we believe a strong majority of Nebraskans see a place for the death penalty in our criminal justice system," Peterson said.
Surrogates have played a major role. Vivian Tuttle of Ewing, whose daughter Evonne was murdered in a 2002 Norfolk bank robbery, has traveled the state extensively urging voters to overturn the Legislature's decision. So have the relatives of 57-year-old Shirlee Sherman, who was stabbed to death along with an 11-year-old boy in 2008. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has also enlisted the support of local sheriffs who support the punishment.
Retain a Just Nebraska has turned to church leaders, particularly the Catholic Church, to present its arguments to voters. Ada Joann Taylor, who was exonerated in a 1985 murder after serving nearly 20 years in prison, also joined forces with death penalty opponents.
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