For possibly the first time in decades, Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers' bill that would do away with the death penalty got unanimous support on its way to the full Legislature for debate.
The bill (LB268) would replace the sentence in capital murder cases with life without parole.
All eight members of the Judiciary Committee voted to advance the bill Monday, including Sens. Chambers, Les Seiler, Colby Coash, Laura Ebke, Bob Krist, Adam Morfeld, Patty Pansing Brooks and Matt Williams.
More than a dozen testifiers in support of the bill (LB268) at the March 4 hearing cited the expense of the death penalty and its lack of deterrent effect. A number of family members of murder victims talked about how the death penalty divided those families and put them in purgatory as the murderers' cases dragged on without resolution.
They said arbitrary distinctions are drawn in Nebraska courts between who gets the death penalty and who gets life in prison.
Tricia Moore, whose son Jer’ray was murdered in Omaha in 2013, said Monday she is pleased by the committee’s vote. She was one of 25 Nebraska murder victims’ family members who submitted a letter last week to state legislators calling for an end to the death penalty.
“We are hopeful the bill will keep gaining support and we believe this vote makes a powerful statement that it will,” Moore said.
As of Monday, 11 senators had added their names to the bill, a number of them conservative Republicans. Based on that and the number of senators seeking information on death penalty repeal, "I think there's as good a chance to get it passed as there has ever been," Chambers said.
Those questions from senators are about the practicality of a death sentence, he added.
In 1979, a repeal bill passed but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charles Thone.
A similar bill by Chambers in 2013 brought 28 votes to end a filibuster against it. Thirty-three votes were needed. But it was the first time since 1979 that a majority of the 49 lawmakers appeared willing to abolish the death penalty.
Many senators now in the Legislature -- including 18 new senators -- have not gone through a serious discussion of the death penalty, Chambers said. Six senators who signed on to the bill are first-time senators.
Chambers also has said he never counts on anything.
"There's no way to predict with certitude what might happen when individuals are casting votes," he said Monday.
Even before the bill was voted out of committee, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy had filed a motion to kill it, and Monday he filed four more amendments.
It's also unknown whether Gov. Pete Ricketts would sign or veto the bill if passed.
Chambers named LB268 his priority bill. He said many people thought he might make his priority a bill (LB127) to prohibit mountain lion hunting.
"To take any other bill as a priority over the death penalty bill would be diminishing the significance and importance of getting the state out of the killing business," he said.