The Nebraska legislature abolished the death penalty Wednesday in a down-to-the-wire vote overriding Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto, making Nebraska the first red state in decades to strike capital punishment from its books.
In a 30-19 vote that crossed party lines, the unicameral legislature defied the Republican governor’s opposition to the death penalty repeal, garnering the exact number of votes needed to overcome his veto.
Nebraska now joins 18 states and the District of Columbia in banning the death penalty. The last state legislature to abolish capital punishment was Maryland in 2013.
Nebraska lawmakers had previously voted three times this year in favor of repealing the death penalty, each with veto-proof majorities. The vote Wednesday comes amid growing efforts to cast opposition to the death penalty as a conservative argument against wasteful spending and big government. There are currently 10 prisoners currently serving out death sentences in Nebraska. The state has not executed a condemned inmate since 1997.
“I wish that I could say that it was my brilliance that brought us to this point, but this would not be true, and we all know it. Had not the conservative faction decided it was time for a change, there’s no way that what is happening today would be happening today,” state Sen. Ernie Chambers said to his colleagues Wednesday. “There has been a confluence of individuals groups and circumstances that have put Nebraska on the threshold of stepping into history, on the right side of history.”
Ricketts, a vocal proponent of the death penalty throughout the legislative debate, actively lobbied lawmakers and the public to reverse their position and come out in support of capital punishment.
“Under this bill, there is no guarantee that convicted murderers will stay behind bars for life or not harm other innocent victims,” Ricketts said in a statement after vetoing the bill Tuesday.
Ultimately, two senators flipped to stand with the governor Wednesday, still one short to keep the veto in place. “I do not take the veto of a governor lightly,” Sen. John Murante said during the floor debate.
Lawmakers debated for hours before casting a single vote, reading passages from the Bible and sharing anecdotes from the flood of community responses that came down on both sides of the issue. Some appeared visibly conflicted over the position they were about to take.
“I campaigned on supporting the death penalty but it wasn’t until now that I really sat down and thought about it,” state Sen. Tyson Larson, a Republican, said during debate. “I sustain the governor’s veto because I campaigned on it.”
He added: “Next time this comes up, it might be different.”