Last month, Maryland became the sixth state in as many years to abolish the death penalty and the 18th overall to abandon capital punishment.

And some observers sense this could be the year Nebraska lawmakers follow suit.

"The death penalty in the United States has become unwieldy," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group critical of how capital punishment is applied.

"In most states, executions are rare, the delay between sentencing and executions has lengthened, and the cost of death penalty cases has grown considerably. Yet for all this additional effort, death penalty cases are still prone to error and the risk of executing an innocent person remains."

Nebraska has 11 men on death row now, and has executed three since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of capital punishment.

The last execution in Nebraska was in 1997, when Robert E. Williams was electrocuted. Williams confessed to murdering three women and trying to kill a fourth during a three-day rampage in 1977 that crossed into three states.

"The public and the families of victims have a right to be frustrated with this system," Dieter said. "But there is no simple way to reduce delays and costs while ensuring that innocent lives are protected and that the system works fairly. This dilemma is one of the principal reasons that the use of the death penalty has declined so dramatically in recent years."

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee voted 7-0 recently to advance a bill (LB543) by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha to change the death penalty to life in prison without the possibility of parole. There was one abstention.

Chambers, the most ardent death penalty opponent in the Legislature, was re-elected to his North Omaha seat in November after sitting out four years because of term limits. Each year from 1973 to 2008, he introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty.

In 1979, his bill passed but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charles Thone.

Chambers refuses to speculate on the chances for his bill this year.

Among those supporting it at a recent hearing was the Nebraska Innocence Project, which is part of a national network that gives free legal representation to people wrongly convicted of crimes. It was founded in 1992 to help prisoners who could be proved innocent through DNA testing.

To date, 305 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 18 who served time on death row. They spent an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.

According to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center, the use of the death penalty is in sharp decline.

Nine states executed people in 2012, compared with 13 the year before. The 43 executions in 2012 were 56 percent fewer than at the peak in 1999. The 78 people sentenced to death in 2012 represented a 75 percent decline since 1996, when 315 death sentences were handed down.

Several studies have shown how expensive the death penalty is.

A 2011 study by the state of California found that capital trials cost on average an additional $1 million more than non-capital cases. And capital cases often cost 10 to 20 times more than murder trials that don't involve the death penalty. The study said the additional costs are incurred from a multitude of factors: two attorneys per side, multiple investigators, multiple experts in the penalty phase of the trial, extended jury selection process, the additional penalty phase and a longer guilt phase.

A 2003 study by the Kansas Department of Corrections found that investigation costs for death-sentence cases were about three times greater than for non-death cases and that the trial costs for death cases were about 16 times greater. It said appeal costs for death cases were about 21 times greater.

A comprehensive study of the death penalty in Nebraska done by the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy found these details from the 1,450 murder cases in Nebraska from 1973 to 2007:

* 235 first-degree murder convictions, or 16 percent of all murder cases.

* Death penalty sought in 103 cases, or 7 percent.

* 31 death sentences given, 2 percent of all murder cases.

* Three executions, less than 1 percent of all murder cases.

The Death Penalty Information Center said that for executions carried out in 2010, the average time between sentencing and execution was 15 years, the longest time for any year since 1976. Even in Texas, the time between sentencing and execution is 10 years. In some states, inmates are on death row for 20, even 30, years. About 275 U.S. inmates have been on death row for 24 years or more.

Of the capital cases that have been concluded, about one-quarter ended in execution. Three-quarters of the defendants were removed from death row for other reasons.

But the death penalty still has supporters. Among those speaking against Chambers' bill before the Judiciary Committee was Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who appeared on behalf of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association. Kleine said some murders are so heinous the death sentence is warranted.

Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege said the DNA exonerations and the costs of the death penalty have softened his support of capital punishment, but he hasn't changed his stance.

"I don't argue that it's a deterrent because of the way we carry it out," he said. "So it's not a deterrent, and yet I have difficulty just taking the attitude that we need to completely do away with it."

Carlson said he might change his stance if abortion was outlawed.

"We are trying to save the lives of people who are not innocent, yet we just turn our backs on killing babies that are innocent," he said. "It's in the ... thousands, versus three people in the last 30 years that we've actually carried out the death penalty on.

"We spend a lot of energy in trying to do away with the death penalty, which is helping the worst of the worst in our society," he said. "But we still ... have not done enough on stemming abortion in our state and in this country."

Said Dieter: "Some have argued that a consideration of costs has no place in our pursuit of justice."

"However, it is not just the price tag of the death penalty that has drawn concern, but rather what is society getting back from capital punishment for all the millions of dollars invested," he said. "And where else could that money be spent that might produce a greater benefit?"

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.

Correction

A previous version of this story contained an incorrect bill number.