Neb. group touts support to stop death penalty repeal

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state's counties

By Grant Schulte
Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. — An organization campaigning to reinstate Nebraska's death penalty after lawmakers repealed it in May said Wednesday it has collected more than enough signatures to place the issue before voters in 2016 and probably enough to block the repeal from going into effect on Sunday.

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which was heavily financed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state's counties. Nebraska was the first traditionally conservative state to repeal capital punishment since North Dakota in 1973.

The group needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the statewide general election ballot, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal going into effect. They appear to have exceeded the 10 percent of registered voters hurdle needed to block repeal pending a November, 2016 ballot measure on the issue.

"Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers," said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive.

The petitions now go to the Nebraska secretary of state's office, which will forward them to counties to verify the signatures in a process that will take about 40 days. It was not immediately clear the formal procedure for suspending the repeal by Sunday.

Nebraska lawmakers eliminated the death penalty when they voted by the narrowest possible margin to override Ricketts' veto. Ricketts assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents.

The number of executions in the United States has gradually declined in recent years. Nebraska was the 19th state to abolish capital punishment, as has the District of Columbia, while the death penalty is legal in 31 states and for some federal crimes.

The 30-19 override vote was largely due to conservative state senators joining forces with more traditional death penalty opponents who have fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some senators said they opposed it for religious and moral reasons, while others cast it as an inefficient government program that wastes tax money.

Nebraska hasn't executed an inmate since 1997, and has never done so using the state's current three-drug lethal injection protocol. The state currently has 10 men on death row, but officials currently lack two of the required drugs and have struggled to obtain them legally.

The signature announcement caps an 82-day petition drive backed by Ricketts and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The governor had given $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty as of the last filing deadline on July 31, while his father had donated $100,000. The group raised a total of more than $652,000 from 40 individual donors and seven groups classified as businesses, political action committees and other entities.

The largest donation in July came from the conservative, Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, which gave $200,000. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty relied on a combination of paid and volunteer petition circulators, and was aided by an Arizona-based strategist who specializes in ballot campaigns.

While most Americans continue to back capital punishment, the Nebraska Legislature's vote featured a vocal conservative bloc against it, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.

"What the Nebraska Legislature did is going to have an effect," said Dunham, whose group takes no stance on the death penalty but often criticizes how it's administered. "The message that conservative legislators can reach across the aisle with moderate and liberal legislators — that message is still there and still resonates."

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