Nebraska abolished the death penalty on Wednesday in a landmark veto-override vote backed by an unusual coalition of conservatives who oppose capital punishment.
Senators in the one-house Legislature voted 30-19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican who supports the death penalty. The vote makes Nebraska the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the punishment since North Dakota in 1973.
Nebraska joins 18 other states and the District of Columbia in banning the ultimate punishment.
Some senators said they philosophically support the death penalty, but are convinced the state will never carry out another execution because of legal obstacles. Nebraska hasn’t executed an inmate since a 1997 electrocution, and the state has never done so with its current lethal injection protocol.
Nebraska lost its ability to execute inmates in December 2013, when one of the three lethal injection drugs required by state law expired.
Ricketts announced this month that the state has purchased two of the drugs that the state now lacks, but opponents have said they still aren’t convinced Nebraska will be able to resume executions. On Tuesday, Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson implored lawmakers to give state officials more time to prepare.
The repeal bill was introduced by independent Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has fought for nearly four decades to repeal the death penalty.
Nebraska’s action to repeal the death penalty is unusual because of its traditionally conservative leanings. Maryland was the last state to end capital punishment, in 2013. Three other moderate-to-liberal states have done so in recent years: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011 and Connecticut in 2012.
Nebraska’s officially nonpartisan Legislature is comprised of 35 registered Republicans, 13 Democrats and an independent. A Nebraska State Patrol spokeswoman said Wednesday that the agency was investigating death threats left on the answering machine of a state senator who supports the repeal.
The last time lawmakers passed a death penalty repeal bill was in 1979, but senators at the time didn’t have enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto.
Nebraska now has 10 men on death row, after one died on Sunday of natural causes. Michael Ryan spent three decades on death row for the 1985 cult killings of two people, including a 5-year-old boy. During a legislative hearing earlier this year, Chambers testified that Ryan had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.