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Gov. Pete Ricketts delivered Tuesday on his promise to veto legislation that would repeal the death penalty for capital murder in Nebraska, and he urged senators to sustain it.

"This is a matter of public safety," said Ricketts, flanked by 18 death penalty supporters, including Attorney General Doug Peterson, senators, law enforcement, prosecutors and the family of a murder victim.

"We need to have strong sentencing. We need to be sure our prosecutors have the tools to be able to put these hardened criminals behind bars." 

Prison guards also need to be protected, he said, as evidenced by a recent riot at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, where two guards were assaulted in the early hours of the uprising.

"And without the threat of additional sanctions on these dangerous criminals, I am concerned for their safety," Ricketts said.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who introduced the bill (LB268) passed Wednesday on a 32-15 vote, said the override will be taken up by the Legislature Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. Thirty votes are required to override the governor's veto. 

Chambers said supporters of repeal will not be voting "with" him, as Ricketts suggested several times Tuesday.  

"They're voting on the basis of their conscience. ... They're voting with the conservative movement around the country. They're voting with Pope Francis and the Catholic church, and with their colleagues who are the same party and persuasion," he said. 

Most of those senators have cast their votes -- based on conscience -- three times, he said. 

"This is a shining moment for the Legislature," Chambers said. "We can take this state out of that period of darkness and bring it into the light of civilization and humane justice."

The governor was joined Tuesday by relatives of Evonne Tuttle, who was one of five people killed in a 2002 Norfolk bank robbery. Three of the killers involved in the robbery are on death row.

Evonne Tuttle's mother, Vivian Tuttle, said she sat through the trials and in each one, watched a surveillance video that showed her daughter get down on her knees, bow her head and be shot to death by Jose Sandoval.

"I want justice for my grandchildren," she said. "I want justice for all the other families."

Peterson and Ricketts pledged to do everything legally possible to overcome any hurdles that exist so Nebraska has an effective death penalty law. 

"We're going to work very diligently to carry out the executions for the inmates who have exhausted their appeals," Ricketts said. "And I am highly confident we will be able to get it done.

"If other states can do it, we can do it, too." 

The governor said he is still talking to senators, and he again urged people to call their representatives. A number of those senators said Tuesday at least half of their constituent contacts are telling them to stick to their votes in favor of repeal. 

Supporters have lost at least one override vote -- Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo. Johnson said he was shaky on his vote in favor of repeal last week. At that time, most of his emails urging him to vote for repeal were from the faith community. 

What he has learned since then, he said, is that people in the pews aren't necessarily on the same page as church leadership. 

Since the governor has been able to procure execution drugs, has made executions a high priority and has vowed to move as fast as possible on executions, Johnson said, he'll support Ricketts' veto. 

Ricketts said Tuesday the state has purchased the drugs.

Chambers noted that the governor has just one of the three drugs for lethal injection in hand.

"If he has paid the money as he said, mail delivery is not that slow," he said. 

Another senator who voted for repeal -- Sen. John Murante of Gretna -- also is reconsidering his vote, he said. 

Murante said he is discussing it with many constituents who have called over the past few days. Before last week's vote, he said, he had been contacted by priests and received correspondence from many of his parish members who favored repeal. 

Since the vote, he said, he's been getting a different perspective from other constituents. 

"I've always been torn on the issue of the death penalty," Murante said, "and I'm gathering as many opinions as I can before rendering a vote on the veto override." 

In determining his vote, he would balance his personal judgment and constituents' beliefs, he said. It is clear that good practicing Catholics can reasonably disagree on the subject of the death penalty. Ricketts is also Catholic.

After he signed the veto, Nebraska's Catholic bishops issued a statement saying they disagree.

"We remain convinced that the death penalty does not deter crime, nor does it make Nebraska safer or promote the common good in our state," they said. "We encourage Catholics to contact their state legislators, encouraging them to vote to override the governor’s veto."

Two senators -- Ken Schilz of Ogallala and Tyson Larson of O'Neill -- who chose not to vote last week, aren't saying what they might do on an override vote. 

Schilz said it's easy to say the state should have the death penalty for the most heinous crimes, but when you think that your vote could end a person's life, that's a big deal. 

"Whether or not a person commits those kinds of crimes or not doesn't change the fact that I consider myself a decent human being," he said. "And talking about giving the go-ahead to put someone to death is a very, very hard decision for me." 

He's waiting to hear that one thing that helps him decide on the issue, he said. 

"I won't step up and do something that I don't think is right." 

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

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State government reporter

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

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