There was a time during early efforts to undo the Legislature's repeal of capital punishment in 2015 that longtime death penalty opponent Sen. Ernie Chambers was confident.

He said he had no doubt Nebraska voters would uphold the decision of the Legislature to stop executions.

Now, because of the way the ballot referendum will appear to voters, he just doesn't know.

"It's so confusing to people," he said.

He even gets confused trying to explain it to those who call him and ask.

The simplest way to think of it is to focus on what the Legislature did, and then to decide if you want to retain the law senators passed to eliminate the death penalty for first-degree murder and substitute it with a life sentence, or if you want to repeal that bill (LB268), keeping the death sentence intact.

Senators voted 32-15 in May 2015 to repeal the death penalty. The governor vetoed the repeal, saying it was an important safety tool and vital to good prison management.

"If the death penalty is not in place, then an inmate has no concern about receiving a more serious sanction," and would be fearless, Ricketts said.

He pointed to the killing of two inmates, presumably by other inmates, during a riot in May 2015 at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. No one has been charged in those deaths.

Senators voted 30-19 to override Ricketts' veto.

But soon after the session ended, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty conducted a successful referendum campaign, funded in part with large donations from Ricketts and his father, Joe Ricketts. Enough people signed the petitions to put the repeal on hold.

Now, both sides have lined up their arguments for and against abolishing the death penalty.


Senators argued during debate on the bill the state was wasting millions of tax dollars on death penalty trials and appeals.

Then in August, they introduced a study of the costs of Nebraska's death penalty by Ernest Goss, a Creighton University economics professor, who found the state spends $14.6 million per year to maintain its capital punishment system.

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson, have denounced the study, saying there are no fiscal savings to eliminating the death penalty.

They say the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy defends indigent people facing the death penalty at no additional cost to taxpayers.

While Goss cites excessive costs of appeals for death row inmates, advocates for the death penalty say eliminating the sentence will not reduce the number of appeals available to convicted murderers.

Death penalty drugs

Retain A Just Nebraska, which wants voters to retain the law that abolishes the death penalty and substitutes life in prison, has argued that Nebraska is unlikely to ever carry out an execution even if voters bring back the death penalty.

The state has been unable in recent years to get two of the three lethal injection drugs, sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide.

Peterson said last week he is confident that if the death penalty is preserved, Nebraska will be able to "model a protocol" that will allow it to implement the death penalty.

But even if the protocol is changed to include different drugs, said University of Nebraska law professor Eric Berger, who opposes the death penalty, pharmaceutical companies are balking at allowing their drugs to be used for executions.

Some states have shrouded their death penalty protocol in secrecy or used smaller compounding pharmacies to supply the drugs.

Death penalty opponent and Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash said that to hide the protocol would take a change in state law. And the Legislature values transparency.

"The stakes on this are just too high," he said.

Deterrent to crime

The two sides disagree on whether studies show the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime.

"It's important for Nebraskans to realize that they would be spending a lot of taxpayer money on a system that there is no evidence that it makes us any safer," said Berger, the Nebraska law professor.

Bob Evnen, one of the founders of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, said he thinks there is good evidence it is a deterrent, that innocent lives are saved by the existence of the death penalty and that the state is morally compelled to have it in place.

Religious groups differ

Faith leaders and their followers have split on the death penalty.

The Nebraska Catholic Conference, priests, nuns and other leaders spoke out last month on their opposition to the death penalty and said they would urge 375,000 Catholics in more than 350 parishes to vote to retain the Legislature's decision.

Catholic catechism teaches that if there are bloodless means to defend human lives against aggressors and protect public order and safety, the death penalty is not needed, said Nebraska Catholic Conference Executive Director Tom Venzor. The bishops stand firm in their opposition.

The conference is taking an active role in advocating for a vote Nov. 8 to retain the abolition of the death penalty with videos, a social media campaign, radio and TV ads and speaking events.

Meanwhile, Stu Kerns, pastor of Zion Church of Lincoln, supports the death penalty and repeal of the law.

If the death penalty is inappropriately applied, he said, then people ought not to do away with it but rather should argue for its reform.

"For me, as I read the Bible, the Bible indicates that all human persons are made in the image of God and therefore they are of incalculable worth," he said. "And when someone treats human life casually, the only response to that kind of brutality is to take their own life. There's no other cost that's appropriate."

That is the duty of the state, he said.

"My personal calling is to forgive and to exercise grace," he said. "The state's calling is to execute justice, whatever's just."

Hearings next week

The Nebraska Secretary of State's office will hold hearings on the death penalty beginning this week.

The first will be Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center, 6400 University Drive South.

The second is Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Nebraskan Student Union, 1013 W. 27th St.

The last hearing is Oct. 18, 6:30 p.m. in Room 1525 at the Nebraska State Capitol.

Early voting begins Monday

You can complete the early voting ballot application and ballot in person at your county clerk/election commission office.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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