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Death penalty opponents got a cash injection Friday, and death penalty advocates accused them of using it to suppress voter rights.

ACLU of Nebraska will give the $400,000 grant from Massachusetts-based Proteus Action League to the Nebraskans for Public Safety coalition formed to fight the effort to retain capital punishment in the state. Proteus Action has given $21 million nationwide in the past five years toward repeal of the death penalty.

"This support demonstrates the world is watching what is happening here this summer," Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska. "This support will be like rocket fuel to the campaign."

ACLU of Nebraska is part of the coalition, as are Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Nebraska Innocence Project, faith leaders, conservative leaders and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.  

Friday afternoon, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty called ACLU participation in the coalition shameful.

“Nebraskans have a constitutional right to vote on whether they wish to restore the death penalty," founding member Bob Evnen said in a statement. "The ACLU has announced that it will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to sabotage the right to vote on this very important issue. Few rights in a democracy are more fundamental than the right to vote. The ACLU’s effort to thwart that right is shameful.”

Replied Conrad: "I absolutely disagree with that. I don't understand that attack."

Conrad said her group's work is the opposite of voter suppression. Declining to sign the pro-death-penalty petition is in fact exercising one's right to vote, she said.

Last month, Nebraska became the first red state since 1973 to abolish capital punishment. The Legislature voted for repeal May 20 and a week later overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. The bill (LB268) goes into effect Aug. 31.

Almost immediately, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy said he'd look at putting the issue to a vote, and Nebraskans for the Death Penalty opened offices in Omaha and Lincoln the first week of June. Spokesman Chris Peterson said the group will open an office in Grand Island soon.

Death penalty supporters have 72 more days to gather 115,000 verified signatures -- 10 percent of registered voters -- to suspend the law and put it to a vote in November 2016. They need about half that number to put the issue to a vote after the law takes effect.

"I think both are hard," Conrad said of the two thresholds. "I can tell you from working both sides of campaigns in direct democracy, it's not easy to be out in the heat and the rain in a multitude of counties. ... I don't think that they or we can take anything for granted."

Conrad said Nebraskans for Public Safety will use the $400,000 to make sure the petition drive is conducted properly and to work statewide to educate people on the issue.

And if the move to stop the law from taking effect is successful, she said, her group will have a good start at working to defeat a vote next year.

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Peterson said he expects Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will raise and spend about $900,000 and will file required paperwork June 30 saying how much it has raised so far.

Also Friday, state Department of Correctional Services spokesman James Foster said death penalty drugs ordered by Corrections Director Scott Frakes had not arrived yet.

Just before the vote on LB268, Ricketts announced the purchase, saying the $54,400 worth of sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide would be arriving soon from India-based Harris Pharma.

Sodium thiopental is not legal in the United States, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has stopped its import. Corrections officials say they are talking with federal officials.

Ricketts and Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson have said LB268 is unconstitutional because it changes death sentences in effect now to life sentences and that they'll proceed with plans to execute the 10 men on death row at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who sponsored the bill, says it does not change death sentences retroactively.

Reach the writer at chuddle@journalstar.com or 402-473-7222.

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