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Nebraska Repeals Death Penalty After Governor’s Veto

Governor Pete Ricketts recently called the fact that Nebraska has not executed anyone since 1997 a “management problem”

Pete Ricketts

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has vetoed the state's recently passed ban on the death penalty.

Nati Harnik/AP

Pete Ricketts

UPDATE: Nebraska state senators overrode Governor Ricketts’ veto of the state’s death penalty ban Wednesday afternoon, the Lincoln Journal Star reports, making the state the latest in the country to repeal the death penalty.

Last week, Nebraska lawmakers voted to ban the death penalty, positioning their state to become the 19th in the country to end capital punishment. In deep-red territory with a heavily Republican legislature, the vote made Nebraska the first conservative state to adopt the progressive reform since North Dakota did so in 1973, and is a sign of the right’s growing willingness to work with the left on criminal justice reform as a means of reducing governmental overreach and spending. But while Nebraska’s legislators are ready to end the practice, Nebraska’s governor is not. In fact, he vetoed it Tuesday, even though the ban passed with enough “yes” votes to override his veto.

“The Legislature is out of touch with Nebraskans on their vote to repeal the death penalty,” Governor Pete Ricketts (R) wrote on Facebook, after the vote. “The overwhelming majority of Nebraskans support the death penalty because they understand that it is an important tool for public safety.”

In Nebraska, 30 votes are required to override a governor’s veto; the death penalty ban passed with 32. That means, to be successful, Ricketts will have to convince three legislators to go back on their votes. And he’s going for it.

In his latest weekly column, Ricketts called the fact that Nebraska has not executed anyone since 1997 a “management problem.” He added that “the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has purchased the drugs necessary to carry out the death penalty here in our state.”

In a press release the night before debate on the bill began, Ricketts announced Nebraska had purchased two of the three lethal injection drugs used in the state, sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide, adding that the state already has the third, potassium chloride. The inaccessibility of these drugs, which pharmaceutical brands shy away from selling, was part of the death penalty debate in Nebraska, and has led other states, like Oklahoma, to begin to experiment with new drugs that have led to botched executions.

The ACLU says Nebraska’s acquisition of these drugs mirrors a 2010 deal the state made to acquire execution drugs, without safety or quality regulations or the approval of the Food and Drug Administration. The recently purchased drugs were sold from the India-based company Harris Pharma; the businessman behind Harris Pharma, Chris Harris, was linked to the 2010 deal.

Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU Nebraska, said in a statement that documents the organization requested describing the more recent transaction “[show] a shady foreign source approached the Department of Corrections and engineered a hasty deal with no assurances from state officials as to fair price, ability to comply with the importation laws, or the efficacy of the drugs in question.”

The effort “is nothing more than déjà vu all over again,” Conrad said.

Still, Rickett’s camp is not slowing down. “[The ACLU’s] threat to sue the state and to prevent sentences from being carried out is only another example of their litigious tactics,” Rickett’s spokesperson, Taylor Gage, told reporters.

Despite Rickett’s commitment to the cause, Sen. Ernie Chambers, the lead sponsor of the bill, has said he is confident he will hold on to enough votes to override the veto. If Chambers succeeds, Governor Rickett’s opinion might be out of touch with Nebraska Republicans, but will remain in line with Republicans across the country.

A majority of Americans – though a dwindling one – support the death penalty. According to a Pew Research Center poll from last month, more than 50 percent of Democrats oppose capital punishment, and more than 75 percent of Republicans support it. Though support is dropping in both camps, Democrats are stepping away from the death penalty at a much faster rate. Ricketts, however, is staying put – even as Republicans in his state change course.

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