Nebraska lawmakers voted once to repeal the death penalty.
On Wednesday, they stuck with that vote one last time.
For the most part.
Legislators earlier voted 32-to-15 for Legislative Bill 268, a repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska. Two senators abstained.
On Wednesday, legislators voted 30-19 to override the veto of Gov. Peter Ricketts, just enough votes for an override. With the vote, Nebraska becomes the first so-called conservative state to repeal capital punishment.
Ricketts needed to flip three senators to sustain his veto. He came close. Two senators, Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo and Sen. John Murante of Gretna, told colleagues they had heard from their constituents and decided to change their votes and sustain the governor’s veto.
Two senators who had abstained earlier voted to sustain the veto: Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill and Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala.
The vote was a triumph for Sen. Ernie Chambers, who first attempted to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska more than 40 years ago. The Unicameral actually approved a repeal bill 36 years ago, but Chambers couldn’t muster the votes needed to override the veto of then-Gov. Charles Thone.
“We’re going through this final step and for me it’s the final step, perhaps, on a long journey,” Chambers told fellow senators as he opened on his motion to override the governor’s veto.
What followed was three-and-a-half hours of intense, solemn, at times emotional debate by state senators who used logic, Bible verses, and pragmatic arguments both for and against capital punishment. Stories were told, both of atrocious murders and outrageous mistakes.
Even opponents of LB 268, such as Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion, acknowledged the magnitude of the vote.
“This is rather a solemn day here in this chamber and it should be,” Kintner stated.
Even with a legislative chamber packed with news media, onlookers, and visitors debate took on a quiet, dignified air.
Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins warned lawmakers they were making a mistake.
“Colleagues, search your souls, search your hearts; be aware of what you’re removing,” Bloomfield implored during legislative floor debate.
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln led a coalition of conservative senators in opposing the death penalty even in the face of criticism from fellow conservatives and the governor. Coash told lawmakers judgment cannot be substituted for political parties or labels.
“I’ve heard all the labels I care to hear this session: liberals, Democrats, Republicans, wimps,” Coash stated. “We are senators.”
LB 268 received 30 votes during both the first and second rounds of debate. The bill survived a filibuster on the second round. It gained support on final reading, clearing the legislature on a 32-15 vote, making Ricketts’ task to sustain a veto more daunting.
After the vote Wednesday afternoon, cheers broke out in the upper gallery by opponents of the death penalty, prompting a gavel and warning from Speaker Galen Hadley of Kearney.
The practical effect of the action is negligible. Nebraska last executed a death-row inmate in 1997, an argument used by supporters of LB 268 to claim capital punishment is broken in Nebraska. There are 10 inmates currently on death row at the Tecumseh state prison.
[Editor’s note: due to heightened interests and repeated requests, we have added more audio to this story than initially posted. The story now includes most of the Unicameral debate on the override of LB 268. Some debate was missed when we switched sound cards.]
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1 min.]
AUDIO: Sen. Ernie Chambers opens legislative debate on veto override. [8 minutes, 40 seconds]
AUDIO: Unicameral debate on veto override of LB 268, part one [1 hour, 40 minutes]
AUDIO: Unicameral debate on veto override of LB 268, part two (includes vote) [40 minutes]