LINCOLN, Neb. – Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed a bill Tuesday that would make Nebraska the first traditionally conservative state in more than four decades to abolish the death penalty, sending it back to lawmakers who will attempt an override.
Nebraska lawmakers passed the bill last week with a veto-proof, 32-15 majority. At least 30 senators are needed for the veto override scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, but the Republican governor has been talking to individual senators to try to keep the death penalty in place.
Nebraska hasn't executed a prisoner since 1997, when the electric chair was used. The state has never imposed the punishment under the lethal injection process now required by state law, and the state lost its ability to do so when a key lethal injection drug expired in December 2013. Ricketts announced this month that the state had purchased new drugs to resume executions, but the state hasn't yet received them and civil liberties groups are expected to challenge the purchases in court.
Ricketts reiterated his support for capital punishment during a Capitol news conference with law enforcement, Nebraskans whose relatives were killed by current death-row inmates, and 11 state senators who support the death penalty.
"Nebraskans expect their public officials to strengthen public safety, not weaken it," Ricketts said. Abolishing capital punishment "sends the message to criminals that Nebraska will be soft on crime."
Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, a fellow Republican, said state officials should keep the death penalty for the most heinous of criminals. Peterson, who took office in January, said his office was committed to overcoming the legal hurdles to allow executions to proceed.
"Give us this opportunity now to show our commitment, to do everything we can to carry out the death penalty in Nebraska," Peterson said.
The state's action to repeal the death penalty is unusual because of its traditionally conservative leanings. Maryland was the last state to end capital punishment, in 2013. Three other moderate-to-liberal states have done so in recent years: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011 and Connecticut in 2012. The last traditionally conservative state to eliminate the death penalty was North Dakota in 1973.
Thirty-two states and the federal government allow capital punishment.
Nebraska lawmakers haven't passed a death penalty repeal bill since 1979. Senators at the time didn't have enough votes to override then-Gov. Charles Thone.
The bill's lead sponsor, independent Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, has said he's confident the bill will maintain enough support for the override. Many senators argued that they oppose the ultimate punishment for religious reasons. Others said it was too costly and inefficient, and questioned whether government could be trusted to manage it.
But some lawmakers said they still believed the veto could be sustained — and at least one senator who previously voted for the repeal said Tuesday he had changed his mind.
"You wouldn't see an effort like this if all hope was lost," said Sen. Beau McCoy, an Omaha Republican who supports capital punishment.
Sen. Jerry Johnson, a Republican who voted for the repeal, said he decided to switch votes because he believes the new governor's administration needs more time to carry out an execution. Johnson said he took calls all weekend from constituents who support the death penalty.
If new problems arise in carrying out the punishment, Johnson said Nebraska's current senators will have another chance to repeal it when they return for next year's session.
The veto came two days after one of Nebraska's 11 death-row inmates died in prison of natural causes. Michael Ryan spent three decades on death row for the 1985 cult killings of two people, including a 5-year-old boy. During a legislative hearing earlier this year, Chambers testified that Ryan had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
Vivian Tuttle, whose daughter Evonne was murdered in a 2002 bank robbery in Norfolk, said she still wants the three robbers executed. They were sentenced to death for the killings of five people in the bank.
"I want justice for my grandchildren," Vivian Tuttle said. "I want justice for all the other families. They need to have that. So we need to keep the death penalty."