The death penalty may be holding on by its last thread in Nebraska.
State lawmakers are within reach of making Nebraska the only red state in recent years to ban the death penalty, voting 32-15 on Wednesday to end the practice at a time when capital punishment has received increased scrutiny at the national level.
Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, will veto the bill, his spokesman said. Before the vote, Ricketts issued a warning to lawmakers: “No one has traveled the state more than I have in the past 18 months, and everywhere I go there is overwhelming support for keeping the death penalty in Nebraska.”
The repeal, the governor said in a statement, would “give our state’s most heinous criminals more lenient sentences.”
Such defiance from the governor may be only symbolic. Lawmakers in the state’s single-chamber Legislature appear to have a veto-proof majority, assembled from a coalition of civil rights advocates and religious conservatives.
“We are so thrilled, but this has been such a long time in the making,” said Amy Miller, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska.
The death penalty is still favored across the U.S. by almost a 2-to-1 margin, according to Gallup’s most recent poll, in October, and Nebraska is one of the nation’s more conservative states.
But the state — which has only 11 men on death row and which hasn’t carried out an execution since 1997 — has long had an abolitionist streak, one often thwarted by law-and-order governors.
Nebraska lawmakers voted to ban executions in 1979, only to see a governor veto the effort. A temporary moratorium in 1999 was also vetoed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The nonpartisan Legislature also came within a vote of passing a ban in 2007.
Wednesday’s measure was sponsored by Sen. Ernie Chambers, a longtime lawmaker who has pushed for a ban every year.
“The record should be crystal clear on what it is we are doing: It is historic,” Chambers said Wednesday, according to the Omaha World-Herald. “We have the opportunity to take one small step for the Legislature, a giant leap for civilization.”
Chambers wasn’t immediately available for comment Wednesday — he was still on the floor as the session continued — but transcripts from a floor debate on April 16 showed the extent to which the death penalty had come under crossfire from a thicket of diverse political perspectives.
Chambers said he was “surprised” by the number of colleagues supporting the ban, for many of whom the issue was deeply personal.
Sen. Colby Coash said his views changed when he went to the penitentiary as a college student to watch and support an execution.
“There was a side there that thought it was a party, and they had a barbecue, and they had a countdown like it was New Year’s Eve,” Coash said, according to a legislative transcript. “They had a band. Can you imagine that, colleagues? A band at an execution. And on the other side of the parking lot were people who were quietly praying, trying to be a witness to life, trying to understand how their government could end a life. And I was on the wrong side of that debate that night, and I never forgot it. … The death penalty is not justice, it is revenge.”
Sen. Laura Ebke, too, cited faith: “The faith that informed my personal views on the question of abortion, which says that life is endowed by God, couldn’t be reconciled in my mind with capital punishment when other means of punishment were available. Friends, we don’t live as nomads. We are settled. And with that settlement comes a means of locking people away who are a danger to society.”
Sen. Bob Krist summed up his support in a single defiant yet polite announcement: “I am Republican enough. I am conservative enough. And I am strong enough to follow through with my life convictions, which is life from conception to natural death. Thank you for listening.”
Not all Christians were in favor of a ban. “I want to read some Bible verses for you that talks about this,” Sen. David Schnoor said. “Exodus 21 talks about an eye for an eye. Numbers 35: ‘Who so killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by mouth of the witnesses.’ That’s how we live. That’s how our Constitution was formed, based on these beliefs.”
Some lawmakers recounted heinous crimes. Others pointed out that the state hadn’t executed anyone in almost two decades. Some were openly tormented by the conflicts in their own convictions.
“This is an issue that rips all of us apart,” Sen. Lydia Brasch said. “I go back to my mother’s haunting words: The state should not take away a life until they have the ability to give it back. But there is justice that needs to be served.”
On that day in April, Brasch added: “I, at this moment, don’t know how I’m going to vote on it. I will ultimately reach that decision when my name is called on the roll call vote.”
Brasch was ultimately one of 15 who voted against the bill on Wednesday, easily outnumbered by 32 peers.