Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy -- an advocate for the death penalty in Nebraska -- said Thursday he could see its repeal coming two years ago.

That's the first time it took a filibuster to stop a bill that would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole, he said. Then, the Legislature lost to term limits about a dozen senators who sided with McCoy. 

"I realized there was going to be an interesting confluence of events -- a new governor, a new AG, a bunch of new senators ... probably for the first time in a long time some of them in very, very conservative districts weren't necessarily for the death penalty and had never been part of a debate on this issue," he said.

On Wednesday, as soon as the vote was taken to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of the death penalty repeal, McCoy launched an effort to study a potential ballot initiative to reinstate capital punishment.

"This is something I'm doing. This is not a legislative function," he said. 

A number of options are out there, McCoy said, including a petition initiative, a referendum and action by the Legislature on a constitutional amendment. 

A referendum, which requires 10 percent of voters' signatures to stop implementation of a law until a vote can be taken, has been attempted twice that he knows of, he said. Once in 2006 for a bill that dissolved Class I school districts and once after the Legislature enacted a universal motorcycle helmet law.

Both were unsuccessful, he said.

A referendum petition "would be a very tall climb to get to, in my mind, if you had from (Wednesday) to three months from now to get 115,000 signatures," he said. 

Rather than just stopping the implementation of the law, he would like to see it put in the Constitution, he said, just like the constitutional right to hunt and fish. 

Any vote on the future of the death penalty would be on the general election ballot of 2016, he said. 

Nebraskans for Justice, which McCoy is leading and which has a Facebook community page, will spend the next two to three weeks studying the options, he said. Until this week, his office was focused on ensuring the death penalty in Nebraska wasn't repealed.

"Up until the very last reading of ayes and nays, I had every hope and confidence that we would have enough votes to sustain Gov. Ricketts' veto. And that obviously didn't happen," he said. 

Senators on Wednesday voted 30-19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of the repeal bill (LB268).

State residents expect senators to respect them, and they expect to have involvement and to be able to offer feedback and influence the outcome of issues, McCoy said. 

"That's what we're trying to do with Nebraskans for Justice, is to give Nebraskans an opportunity to weigh in on both sides of the issue," he said. 

An October 2014 national Gallup poll showed 63 percent of 1,017 adults favored the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. In a September poll of 1,252 adults nationwide, 50 percent said they would choose the death penalty over life in prison with no possibility of parole, compared to 45 percent who favored life in prison.

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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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