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Nebraska Lawmakers Have Successfully Abolished the Death Penalty

If they succeed, Nebraska will be the 19th state—and the first led by Republicans—to abolish the death penalty.
May 27, 2015, 5:00pm
Image via Flickr user Ken Piorowski.

[UPDATE: Nebraska's legislature has successfully overridden Ricketts' veto with a vote of 30-19—the bare minimum to overturn the governor's veto.]

On Tuesday night, as expected, Nebraska's Republican Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed a bill to repeal the death penalty in his state, following through on a promise he'd made last week, when the state legislature voted 32-15 in favor of the measure. Surrounded by law enforcement officers and the families of murder victims at a news conference Tuesday, Ricketts told reporters that maintaining the state's death penalty was "a matter of public safety."

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Later today, state lawmakers will try to override Ricketts' veto, a move that would make Nebraska the first Republican-led state to end capital punishment.

Supporters of repeal point out that Nebraska hasn't executed a prisoner since 1997, and only has ten inmates on death row. Ricketts dismissed those numbers Wednesday, calling the lack of executions in his state a "management problem."

"I am committed to ensuring that Nebraska has a functional death penalty," Ricketts said in a statement, adding that "the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has purchased the drugs necessary to carry out the death penalty here in our state."

According to the Omaha Daily Herald, Ricketts issued a press release earlier this month announcing that the state had purchased two of the three drugs necessary for lethal injections—sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide—from the Indian distributor HarrisPharma.

Nebraska officially switched its execution method from the electric chair to lethal injection in 2009. In 2011 Hospira, the United States' sole manufacturer of sodium thiopental—an anesthetic often used in lethal injections—announced that it would cease production of the drug. In a press release, the company wrote that they were concerned that they "could not prevent the drug from being diverted to departments of corrections for use in capital punishment procedures."

That same year, a federal judge ruled that Nebraska had illegally imported sodium thiopental, from a drug company based in India. According to the Associated Press, state officials then "obtained a new batch from another Indian source," only to have the drug's Swiss manufacturer, Naari AG, claim the sodium thiopental in question was a sample meant for non-lethal use in Zambia. According to the Daily Herald, at least one of the sources for Nebraska's 2011 sodium thiopental purchase was HarrisPharma.

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In an op-ed published by the Omaha Daily Herald earlier today, Ricketts defended his veto. "Unlike California or Texas, which have hundreds on death row," he wrote, "we use the death penalty judiciously and prudently." He continued:

It was just six years ago that the method for carrying out the death penalty was changed from the electric chair to lethal injection. That change was pushed for by the same special interests that are now standing in the way of its use. It is the litigious actions of these groups that impede the will of the people.

Overturning the death penalty, he argued, "vests the killers with more justice than the victims."

If state lawmakers override Ricketts' veto, Nebraska will become the 19th state to completely abolish the death penalty.

Five in-depth stories on the death penalty:

1. The Majority of US States Do Not Have the Death Penalty
2. Liberals Won't Let the Death Penalty Die
3. Utah Firing Squad Proposal Points to Death Penalty Crisis
4. UN Vote Against Death Penalty Highlights Global Abolitionist Trend and Leaves the US Stranded
5. Meet the Irish Catholic Priest Who Ministers to Inmates on Indonesia's Death Row

Follow Drew Millard on Twitter.