In a climactic political showdown, Nebraska's lawmakers overrode a veto and banned the death penalty Wednesday.
The ban passed by the thinnest of margins, making Nebraska the first conservative-dominated legislature to outlaw the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973.
The landmark vote comes as the use of capital punishment, while still favored by a majority of Americans, has gone into general decline and received increased scrutiny across the U.S. Nebraska itself hadn’t carried out an execution since 1997.
Nebraska's single-chamber Legislature needed 30 votes to override Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of the ban Tuesday, which he had announced while flanked by law enforcement officials and a murder victim’s family.
Thirty votes is what they got, with anti-death-penalty conservatives and liberals unifying for a 30-19 vote that brought applause to the chamber when the deciding vote rolled in.
The vote was tied at 13 to 13 at one point during roll call before breaking decisively toward a ban.
Ricketts didn’t hide his disgust.
“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” he said in a statement after the vote. “While the Legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue.”
The passage marks a crowning career achievement for Sen. Ernie Chambers, an iconoclastic lawmaker who once sued God and goaded fellow lawmakers into making Nebraska the first U.S. state to divest funds from apartheid South Africa. He has doggedly pursued a death penalty ban for decades.
Nebraska has long had an abolitionist streak, voting to ban executions in 1979, only to see a governor veto the effort. The same happened with a temporary moratorium in 1999. A 2007 attempt failed by 1 vote.
This year, the deciding vote was preceded by months of personal testimony, scientific citation, internal reflection, public denunciation, lobbying, filibustering, and pitched debate over the sanctity of life and different interpretations of the Bible.
During the final floor debate Wednesday, the nonpartisan Legislature’s floor became a battleground of theological debate, where lawmakers waged combat with scriptural citations and recitations.
Many Christian lawmakers deeply opposed to abortion said they could not reconcile their philosophical stances on the sanctity of life with the death penalty.
Sen. Tyson Larson, a potentially crucial swing vote who had previously abstained, and who represents “probably the most Catholic district in the state,” found himself openly torn between religious and political principles.
“The morality of the state to judge taking a life — when no human should even be that judge, to take a life — is hard for me to give,” Larson told his fellow lawmakers. “Why should the state, when I don’t think a human should?”
However, Larson added: “In the past I’ve always supported the death penalty, and I’ve campaigned on supporting the death penalty. It wasn’t until now that I really sat down and thought about it.”
Larson said he decided he had to support the governor’s veto because he had campaigned on it. But he warned, “This might be the last time I give the state the right to take a life.”
As the roll call ticked up to the 30 necessary votes to override the veto, Larson’s vote ultimately wasn’t needed.
Death penalty opponents across the country hailed the vote, hoping the ban could be a portent of things to come.
“Today marks a remarkable and historic victory for our state,” American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad said in a statement, adding: “The Nebraska Legislature, with the world watching, made their voice a part of the national conversation. We are a nation that is turning away from the death penalty. This victory stands as a testament to what can happen in our sister states.”
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