Veto Expected After Nebraska Lawmakers Vote To Abolish Death Penalty
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There are 32 states that still have the death penalty, but lawmakers in Nebraska say their state should no longer be one of them. Legislation to end capital punishment was approved earlier this week. Now it's on the desk of Governor Pete Ricketts, and Ricketts says he'll definitely veto it. In fact, right now Governor Ricketts is lobbying state senators hard because anti-death penalty advocates just may have the votes to override that veto. Bill Kelly is a reporter for NET Nebraska Public Broadcasting Network, and he's going to tell us more. Welcome to the program, Bill.
BILL KELLY: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: So this is not the first time that there's been an attempt to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska, but what's driving it this time? Was there a particular crime incident - someone on death row that has people changing their minds?
KELLY: It has been a real incremental change, and so you can't point to any one incident to say that there was a change of opinion. We've seen a gradual change in public opinion and in the makeup of the legislature over the past few years that's led to this vote to repeal just earlier this week.
CORNISH: You talked about the makeup of the legislature, but I understand in Nebraska, it's non-partisan, one House, so how do you kind of figure out the lay of the land there?
KELLY: That's part of what made going into this legislative session so difficult to figure out where this issue would land. There have been efforts to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska literally since statehood. What's changed most recently, perhaps, is there has been a noticeable change in public opinion polls showing a shift, especially among conservatives who see the whole death penalty process as perhaps being too costly, that it's morally objectionable and consistent with their view of the sanctity of human life. We also have term limits, and so there was a whole new crop of freshmen senators as well, many who did not get asked about their position on the death penalty during their campaigns. So sorting it out was a significant issue, and it wasn't until these last votes as the bill made its way through that people had a real understanding of just how wide a margin it would be. And 32-15 is a pretty significant margin.
CORNISH: So then Governor Ricketts actually said this - no one has traveled the state more than I have in the past 18 months, and everywhere I go there's overwhelming support for keeping the death penalty in Nebraska. Is the governor right about that?
KELLY: In the most recent poll done by the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which does have an interest in the debate, 30 percent said the death penalty was an appropriate punishment for murder, but that meant nearly 60 percent thought a sentence of no parole or the possibility of parole was preferable to capital punishment. That's a huge shift from the mid '90s when nearly 90 percent of those polled said they supported the death penalty.
CORNISH: There are about a dozen people on death row in Nebraska right now. What happens to them, and has there been any reaction from, say, the loved ones of their victims?
KELLY: Probably not a lot changes. Nebraska hasn't had an execution in the state since 1997. That's when we still had the electric chair. There hasn't been a single execution since the state shifted to process of lethal injection. If the state goes to life without parole, they will simply stay in the state's correctional facilities until they die.
CORNISH: That's Bill Kelly. He reports for NET, Nebraska's Public Broadcasting Network. Thanks so much for talking with us.
KELLY: Thank you, Audie.
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