On May 27, 2015, the Nebraska legislature voted to abolish the death penalty. A week earlier, the abolition bill passed the unicameral Nebraska State Legislature by a bipartisan majority of 32-15. After Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill, the legislature overrode his veto 30-19. The change is scheduled to go into effect in August but still faces opposition from the governor. If the law takes effect, Nebraska will be the 19th state to abolish capital punishment, and the first conservative state to do so in over 40 years.
Nebraska was just one vote shy of repealing the death penalty in 2007. Since then, many grassroots organizations have campaigned extensively for abolition. Under the national title Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, these advocacy groups worked with conservatives, evangelicals, and liberal abolitionist organizations against the death penalty. These grassroots organizations managed to build a veto-proof coalition of lawmakers, despite Governor Pete Ricketts’s aggressive lobbying for capital punishment. After the legislature overrode his veto, he announced his intention to execute the remaining prisoners on death row before the bill goes into effect on August 27 and to support a ballot referendum to overturn the repeal law.
Nebraska’s repeal of the death penalty is especially notable because it is the first conservative legislature to abolish the death penalty since 1973. Conservative lawmakers, traditionally in favor of capital punishment because of their “tough on crime” ideology, viewed the death penalty as a failed policy. They no longer thought it served as a deterrent, and Nebraska had not executed anyone in nearly two decades. They also believed that the death penalty’s high cost no longer justified its existence. Moreover, a general distrust of government and a desire to be consistent with their pro-life beliefs persuaded many conservative lawmakers to oppose capital punishment.
Ten prisoners still remain on death row in Nebraska, and their fate remains unclear. State Senator Ernie Chambers, the sponsor of the repeal bill and a longtime death penalty abolitionist, said that these prisoners “remain under a death sentence but it cannot be carried out.” Meanwhile, Governor Ricketts has stated that he will proceed with the executions. However, an execution requires a death warrant, which only the state supreme court can issue. Furthermore, Nebraska lacks the drugs necessary to carry out the executions, and the FDA said the state cannot legally import one of the drugs, an anesthetic called sodium thiopental, because Nebraska’s supplier is not approved to sell it. If Nebraska does attempt to import the drug, it will be seized at the border by the FDA. Despite this ban, Governor Ricketts has already purchased the drugs from a supplier in India. In the other 18 states that have abolished the death penalty, no death row inmates have been executed after repeal. In two of those states, New Mexico and Connecticut, which abolished capital punishment in 2009 and 2012 respectively, there are still prisoners on death row, though neither state currently has plans for executions.
After the repeal, a pro-death penalty grassroots organization formed to mount a petition drive to overturn the repeal bill. The group must collect 57,500 signatures by August 27 in order to create a ballot referendum for the 2016 general election. Meanwhile, opponents of the death penalty who helped secure its repeal are organizing against the petition, ensuring that capital punishment in Nebraska will remain in limbo for some time to come.