Nebraska might repeal death penalty due to drug shortage

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Nebraska is considering repealing the death penalty amid a shortage of lethal injection drugs, with legislation to eliminate capital punishment clearing a major hurdle Thursday.

Lawmakers voted 30-13 to advance the bill that would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment in first-degree murder cases. If that support holds, death penalty opponents would have enough votes to override Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' promised veto.

A coalition of Republicans who voted for the bill cast the death penalty as a wasteful and bungling government program, but Ricketts released a statement urging them to reconsider.

Nebraska hasn't executed anyone since 1997 and has no way to carry out sentences for the 11 men sitting on death row because its supply of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic that's part of its execution protocol, expired in December 2013. Ricketts and Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson have vowed to find a solution, but the Department of Correctional Services has yet to obtain a new supply.

Death penalty states across the nation have been forced to find new drugs and new suppliers because pharmaceutical companies, many of which of which are based in Europe, have stopped selling them for executions. Some states are looking at alternatives. Tennessee passed a law last year to reinstate the electric chair if it can't get lethal injection drugs, and Utah has reinstated the firing squad as a backup method.

In Oklahoma, lawmakers have sent the governor a bill that would allow the state to use nitrogen gas hypoxia. That comes as executions there are on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether the state's three-drug method of lethal injection is constitutional. Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming joined Alabama in a court filing Wednesday urging the court to uphold the use of the sedative midazolam in executions.

If Nebraska's repeal passes, the state would join six others that have abolished the death penalty since 2000. The Delaware Senate voted last month to end capital punishment, but the bill faces an uphill battle in the House.

The Nebraska vote reflects a growing sentiment among some conservative residents that the state will never execute an inmate again.

"The question of the death penalty has been moving from one of whether you find it morally justifiable to one of whether you trust the government to carry it out properly," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that is critical of how the death penalty is carried out.

The bill must advance through two more rounds of voting in the one-house, nonpartisan Legislature, and death penalty supporters are still working to block the legislation.

"I would say that those who favor getting rid of the death penalty have a long ways to go until they're going to have this bill cross the finish line," Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, an outspoken death penalty supporter, said.

Death penalty supporters peppered Thursday's debate with tales of gruesome killings, calling the death penalty a just response to crimes such as a 2002 bank robbery in Norfolk in which five people were killed.

"Our days are numbered, and when you're a criminal who commits a crime, you have numbered your days and that warrants the death penalty," said Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte.

Most Americans still favor the death penalty for prisoners convicted of murder, but the support has reached a 40-year low, according to a survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. The survey found that 56 percent of people support the death penalty in cases of murder, while 38 percent remain opposed.

The sponsor of the Nebraska measure, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, has fought for four decades to abolish capital punishment. The Legislature passed a repeal measure once, in 1979, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Charles Thone.