Nebraska politicians can’t agree on the death penalty – now voters get to decide

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After the conservative state repealed capital punishment and the governor unsuccessfully tried to keep it, a bid to bring it back again will go to a public vote

When Nebraska last year became the first conservative state to repeal the death penalty in more than 40 years, change came through a vote that saw ideological opponents of capital punishment unite with pragmatists worried about cost and effectiveness.

But it was not an outcome that the states governor, Pete Ricketts, was ready to accept. In a contentious tug-of-war, Ricketts vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature before the lawmakers overrode him by a 30 to 19 vote.

Within a few weeks, death penalty supporters gathered enough signatures to introduce a ballot measure. Ricketts is bankrolling that effort, to the tune of $300,000.

This bid to bring back capital punishment again will go to a public vote on 8 November, as both sides escalate their spending and their rhetoric in an ideological battle over the penalty, even though the sparsely populated state of less than 2 million people rarely carries it out.

I think a lot of people, that rubbed them the wrong way but you know, thats the democratic process and now the voters get to decide, Dan Parsons, a spokesman for the anti-death penalty group Retain a Just Nebraska, said of the governors contributions.

Retain a Just Nebraska, which Parsons says has raised $2.7m, began airing a television commercial this week featuring Ada JoAnn Taylor, one of the Beatrice Six.

Taylor spent more than 19 years in prison as one of six people wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a 68-year-old woman in Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1985. After my arrest I was threatened with the death penalty and told Id be the first woman on death row in Nebraska nearly every day that I was in the Gage County jail until I agreed to plead guilty, she told a press conference on Tuesday.

She was taken away from her 14-month-old son and had to give him up for adoption. They did not meet again for 26 years. Taylor said that anxiety about possibly being executed caused her to become delusional: The threat of the death penalty was terrifying and overwhelming, I came to believe I must have been guilty.

The governor has countered in a newspaper column that checks and balances in Nebraska ensure that the death penalty is used sparingly and applied justly, and rapid advancements in DNA technology will help to ensure accuracy in future cases.

Ricketts father, Joe, has also given $100,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, the Omaha World-Herald reported. The group did not respond to requests for comment. Joe Ricketts is a billionaire who founded the online broker TD Ameritrade. The Ricketts family owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

This is an internal political fight between Governor Ricketts and the legislature, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. He has staked his political prestige on overturning the repeal of the death penalty.

Voters in California and Oklahoma will also decide death penalty questions on 8 November. Confusingly, the ballot language in Nebraska means that selecting retain will abolish capital punishment and repeal will keep it, raising the possibility that some votes will be cast erroneously.

Nebraska has executed three people since capital punishment was reinstated nationwide in 1976 and none since 1997, when Robert Williams, convicted of multiple murders, died in the electric chair. Its death row consists of 10 people. Across the country, 17 people have been executed this year in five states, but the punishment is in decline the US is on track for the fewest judicial killings in a year since 1991.

A demonstrator wears an anti-death penalty button in Oklahoma, another state that will decide death penalty questions. Photograph: Nick Oxford / Reuters/Reuters

Parsons cited a disputed study by a Creighton University economist, which claims that Nebraskas death penalty costs on average an extra $14.6m annually compared with life without parole.

Fiscal conservatives whether youre Republican or Democrat I think most people in Nebraska dont like wasting tax dollars, he said. Colby Coash, a Republican state senator, was one of the conservatives who voted for the repeal, calling the practice unjust.

In a speech last year he said his stance was informed by seeing the suffering of the sister of a murder victim who waited in vain for 30 years for her brothers killer to be executed. In the end, the death row inmate died of cancer.

Coash also recalled feeling uneasy when, as a college student in Lincoln in 1994, he went to the state penitentiary for a late-night execution. People gathered outside to celebrate in what he described as a carnival-like atmosphere, with a band playing, people drinking beer and grilling food and a New Years Eve-style clock counting down the minutes until midnight.

You wouldnt have been able to tell the difference between what I was participating in at 11 oclock at night and what you might see an hour before a [college] football game, he told the audience. At midnight, everybody cheered … and fireworks shot off.

A report in the New York Times put the crowd at about 2,000. Harold Otey was executed in the same electric chair used in Nebraskas previous execution, 35 years earlier. Mr Otey made no final statement, but mouthed I love you, to his three chosen witnesses after he was strapped into the chair, the report said. Sweat poured off his head and soaked his shirt. Minutes later, four 2,400-volt jolts of electricity coursed through his body. After the third jolt, smoke rose from his left leg.

Even if voters decide in favor of the punishment, other hurdles pose considerable challenges to future executions in the state.

Now committed to the lethal injection method, it is far from clear that the state would even be able to source suitable drugs. As BuzzFeed reported, last year Nebraska spent $26,700 on a feckless attempt to import drugs from a dubious source in India. The shipment never left the country because the drugs were likely illegal to import into the US and would have been seized by federal authorities.

Even if the voters restore the death penalty, theres no guarantee that the statute is even constitutional in the light of a US supreme court decision in January on the role of juries in sentencing in Florida, Dunham said. Theres a very significant prospect that Nebraskas death penalty statute would be declared unconstitutional because the ultimate sentencing decision there, the weighing of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, is made by a three-judge panel rather than a jury, he said.

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