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Nebraska's governor loves the death penalty so much it got him sued

In 2015, the Nebraska legislature voted to repeal the death penalty and replace it with the punishment of life without parole. Gov. Ricketts immediately vetoed the bill and campaigned for a referendum.

by Taylor Dolven
Dec 4 2017, 11:41am

Nebraska’s death penalty is illegal, a new lawsuit alleges.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ 2016 referendum on the death penalty may have been unlawful, meaning the 2015 legislative repeal of the death penalty is still in place, according to a lawsuit filed Monday morning by the ACLU on behalf of Nebraska’s 11 death row inmates.

The lawsuit, filed in state court, alleges that Gov. Ricketts overstepped his authority by using his position and public funds to raise money and support for the referendum in violation of the separation of powers. The lawsuit asks the court to prevent the state “from carrying out any executions or taking steps toward carrying out any executions, including executions of any of the Plaintiffs and Indispensable Parties.”

In 2015, the Nebraska Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty and replace it with the punishment of life without parole. Gov. Ricketts immediately vetoed the bill. Days later, the Legislature voted to override Ricketts’ veto with a supermajority, and the death penalty was officially repealed.

In the following months, Gov. Ricketts and other state executive officials lobbied for a referendum on the death penalty with hopes of reinstating it. The lawsuit alleges that Ricketts, along with his parents, provided the majority of total funding for the petition drive to get the referendum on the ballot in its first months.

READ: South Carolina’s death penalty will become secret if the governor gets his way

In a July 2015 fundraising letter from Gov. Ricketts obtained by the ACLU through a public records request, the governor urged Nebraskans to make a financial contribution to “Nebraskans for the Death Penalty,” the political group that supported the referendum.

“State senators who voted to repeal the death penalty have ignored the 64 percent majority of Nebraskans who overwhelmingly support the death penalty,” the fundraising letter said. “Please join our statewide effort by signing a local petition and by making a financial contribution of $1,000, $750, $250, $100, $50, or $35 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty today.”

Ricketts’ efforts paid off. On Nov. 8, 2016, Nebraskans voted in the referendum to reinstate the death penalty. Plans to begin executions again after a 20-year hiatus are already underway. Just last month the Nebraska Department of Corrections sent a letter to death row inmate and plaintiff in this case, Jose Sandoval, advising him that it had obtained the lethal injection drugs needed to execute him.

READ: Death row inmate who survived his own execution really doesn’t want a do-over

Gov. Ricketts insists he did nothing wrong.

“The Governor’s Office holds itself to a high standard and follows state law regarding the use of taxpayer resources,” said a spokesperson. “This liberal advocacy group has repeatedly worked to overturn the clear voice of the Nebraska people on the issue of capital punishment and wastes taxpayer dollars with frivolous litigation. The administration remains committed to protecting public safety and creating a safe environment for our Corrections officers.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the ACLU’s lawsuit was filed in federal court.