Referendum filed in Nebraska to repeal abolished death penalty

by Elizabeth A. Elliott

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A referendum to repeal a law that abolished the death penalty in Nebraska has been filed. The Nebraskans for the Death Penalty collected 166,692 petition signatures, which they delivered to Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale Aug. 26.

The group needed 5 percent of registered voters from at least 38 of Nebraska’s 92 counties to sign by Aug. 27 to place the referendum on the November 2016 ballot. While that 5 percent equals nearly 57,000 signatures, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty collected 10 percent of signatures from over 70 counties in just 82 days.

On May 20, Nebraska became the 19th state to abolish the death penalty. The bill passed with a 32-15 vote, but was vetoed by Gov. Peter Ricketts May 26. The next day, after debating for two and a half hours, legislators overrode the veto with a 30-19 vote. Almost immediately, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty set about to get signatures.

“I believed from the outset the petition drive would be successful, but I didn’t imagine we’d collect this many signatures,” said State Sen. Beau McCoy, co-chair of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, in the press release. “The success of the petition drive is a testament to the strong support of Nebraskans for keeping the death penalty but also to the volunteers from Omaha to Chadron and Fairbury to Pierce. Volunteers gathered tens of thousands of signatures at county fairs, on street corners, in their neighborhoods and even going door to door.”

Co-chair Don Stenberg, current state treasurer and former attorney general, said in the press release that “Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment” by signing the petition.

“If Nebraskans weren’t overwhelmingly supportive of capital punishment, it would not have been possible to gather this many signatures in less than twelve weeks,” Stenberg said. “I believe it’s especially important to have over-shot the 10% figure by this margin to make it clear that the repeal of the death penalty will not become law until voters have spoken at the ballot box and to limit new avenues for appeal of death penalty sentences.”

Matt Maley, conservative coordinator for Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told NCR he believes the success of the petition drive is an expression of a vocal minority and he’s not worried. 

“I’m confident Nebraskans will make it clear that we don’t want the death penalty,” he said. “We’re prepared to launch a counter-campaign. We’ll be at schools and parishes teaching the facts on the death penalty.” 

Maley believes the focus on education and making sure the voters are informed, will help voters make the right decision to keep the death penalty illegal. When Nebraskans for the Death Penalty sent circulators to gather signatures, Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty had volunteers stationed by the circulators, handing out information cards and letting people know they didn’t have to sign the petitions. Maley said if enough signatures are validated for the referendum, Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty will hand out more information at community events, possibly bring in those exonerated from death row for talks and television and radio ads.

“The broken nature of the death penalty has been on full display this summer with the ongoing fiasco surrounding the Governor’s attempts to illegally import lethal injection drugs from overseas,” said Marc Hyden, national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a project of Equal Justice USA. “Despite repeated promises, the Governor has failed to obtain the drugs needed to carry out even one execution. The Governor has given Nebraskans zero reason to believe that he can fix the state’s irreparably broken death penalty.” 

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