Ricketts vetoes bill to abolish Nebraska's death penalty

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed a bill Tuesday that would make Nebraska the first traditionally conservative state in more than four decades to abolish the death penalty, sending it back to lawmakers who will attempt an override.

Nebraska lawmakers passed the bill last week with a veto-proof, 32-15 majority. At least 30 senators are needed for the veto override scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, but the Republican governor has been talking to individual senators to try to keep the death penalty in place.

Nebraska hasn't executed a prisoner since 1997, when the electric chair was used. The state has never imposed the punishment under the lethal injection process now required by state law, and the state lost its ability to do so when a key lethal injection drug expired in December 2013. Ricketts announced this month that the state had purchased new drugs to resume executions, but the state hasn't yet received them and civil liberties groups are expected to challenge the purchases in court.

Ricketts reiterated his support for capital punishment during a Capitol news conference with law enforcement, Nebraskans whose relatives were killed by current death-row inmates, and 11 state senators who support the death penalty.

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Ricketts vetoes bill to abolish Nebraska's death penalty
State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, left, and Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, right, and Jeremy Nordquist, top right, celebrate after the Nebraska legislature voted to abolish the death penalty on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. 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. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Spectators in the balcony applaud after the Nebraska Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. 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. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, right, celebrates with Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln after 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. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Neb. state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha speaks before the Legislature voted 30-19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a death penalty repeal bill, in a vote that made it the first traditionally conservative state to abolish capital punishment in more than four decades. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nebraska lawmakers, including Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, center, and Sen Beau McCoy of Omaha, center rear, follow the vote to abolish the death penalty on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. 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. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
In this May 27, 2015, photo, Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha speaks in Lincoln, Neb., during debate on overriding Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a death penalty repeal bill. Death penalty supporters are looking to challenge the Nebraska Legislature's landmark repeal vote, and Sen. McCoy is also considering a ballot initiative to reinstate capital punishment. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Neb. state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha smiles during a debate before lawmakers gave final approval to a bill abolishing the death penalty with enough votes to override a promised veto from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. The 32-15 vote on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, in Lincoln, Neb., was bolstered by conservative senators who oppose capital punishment for fiscal, religious and pragmatic reasons. on a bill to abolish the death penalty. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Neb. state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, center, laughs in the Legislative Chamber with Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis, left, and Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha, right, after lawmakers gave final approval to his bill to abolish the death penalty with enough votes to override a promised veto from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. The 32-15 vote on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, in Lincoln, Neb., was bolstered by conservative senators who oppose capital punishment for fiscal, religious and pragmatic reasons. At rear is Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, an opponent of the bill. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
State Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, standing center, follows the vote on his bill abolishing the death penalty, which passed with enough votes to override a promised veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts, Wednesday, May 20, 2015, in Lincoln, Neb. The 32-15 vote was bolstered by conservative senators who oppose capital punishment for fiscal, religious and pragmatic reasons. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Neb. state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, left, bumps forearms with Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus after lawmakers gave final approval to a bill abolishing the death penalty with enough votes to override a promised veto from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. The 32-15 vote on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, in Lincoln, Neb., was bolstered by conservative senators who oppose capital punishment for fiscal, religious and pragmatic reasons. on a bill to abolish the death penalty. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Neb. Gov. Pete Ricketts gestures during a news conference in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Gov. Ricketts voiced his opposition to a bill to abolish the death penalty which is up for a final vote before the Legislature on Wednesday, and promised to veto the bill should it pass. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha speaks during second-round debate, Friday, May 15, 2015, at the Legislature in Lincoln, Neb., on a bill to abolish the death penalty. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
The board in the Legislative Chamber shows a 30 aye,16 nay vote with two abstaining, on a bill to abolish the death penalty, following second-round debate, Friday, May 15, 2015, at the Legislature in Lincoln, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nebraska lawmakers sit in the dark Legislative Chamber during second-round debate, Friday, May 15, 2015, in Lincoln, Neb., on a bill to abolish the death penalty. The Chamber was dark due to heavy storm clouds passing through the area. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
State Sen. Beau McCoy, center, of Omaha, speaks during second-round debate, Friday, May 15, 2015, at the Legislature in Lincoln, Neb., on a bill to abolish the death penalty, as state Sens. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, left, and Dan Hughes of Venango, right, listen. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
FILE - This July 7, 2010 file photo shows Nebraska's lethal injection chamber at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Neb. There’s not a lot of sympathy for the 11 men on death row in Nebraska, but spurred by frustration about the growing difficulty and cost of carrying out executions, lawmakers are considering eliminating the death penalty. (AP Photo/Nate Jenkins, File)
Miriam Thimm Kelle, left, whose brother James Thimm was tortured and killed on a southeast Nebraska farm in 1985, is hugged by Byron Peterson of Scottsbluff, after she testified in favor of a law proposal to change the death penalty to life imprisonment without parole, during a hearing before the Judiciary Committee in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, March 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nebraska state senators take a break from debating the repeal of the death penalty to recognize visiting students in the visitor's gallery in Lincoln, Neb., Monday, May 13, 2013. Supporters of a repeal of the death penalty measure initiated a "test vote" on Monday to publicly gauge their backing. The vote suggested that 26 of the 49 state senators support the repeal, while 18 want to keep the death penalty in place. Five did not vote. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
State Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha reviews LB 306, a bill introduced by her to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska, during a first round debate, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010, at the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. (AP Photo/Bill Wolf)
Miriam Thimm Kelle, whose brother James Thimm was killed and tortured by death row inmate Michael Ryan, follows debate in the balcony of the legislative chamber in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday, May 19, 2009. Nebraska is one step closer to a legal means of executing prisoners, as lawmakers Tuesday gave first-round approval to a bill that would make lethal injection the state's sole method. Miriam Thimm Kelle opposes the death penalty. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Former state Sen. Ernie Chambers, right, testifies before the Judiciary Committee on (LB36), a measure that would allow Nebraska to put inmates to death with lethal injection, in Lincoln, Neb., Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009. Chambers said that Nebraska could put inmates to death with rat poison or pesticide if lawmakers approve (LB36), a measure to change the state's method of execution to lethal injection.(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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"Nebraskans expect their public officials to strengthen public safety, not weaken it," Ricketts said. Abolishing capital punishment "sends the message to criminals that Nebraska will be soft on crime."

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, a fellow Republican, said state officials should keep the death penalty for the most heinous of criminals. Peterson, who took office in January, said his office was committed to overcoming the legal hurdles to allow executions to proceed.

"Give us this opportunity now to show our commitment, to do everything we can to carry out the death penalty in Nebraska," Peterson said.

The state'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. The last traditionally conservative state to eliminate the death penalty was North Dakota in 1973.

Thirty-two states and the federal government allow capital punishment.

Nebraska lawmakers haven't passed a death penalty repeal bill since 1979. Senators at the time didn't have enough votes to override then-Gov. Charles Thone.

The bill's lead sponsor, independent Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, has said he's confident the bill will maintain enough support for the override. Many senators argued that they oppose the ultimate punishment for religious reasons. Others said it was too costly and inefficient, and questioned whether government could be trusted to manage it.

But some lawmakers said they still believed the veto could be sustained - and at least one senator who previously voted for the repeal said Tuesday he had changed his mind.

"You wouldn't see an effort like this if all hope was lost," said Sen. Beau McCoy, an Omaha Republican who supports capital punishment.

Sen. Jerry Johnson, a Republican who voted for the repeal, said he decided to switch votes because he believes the new governor's administration needs more time to carry out an execution. Johnson said he took calls all weekend from constituents who support the death penalty.

If new problems arise in carrying out the punishment, Johnson said Nebraska's current senators will have another chance to repeal it when they return for next year's session.

The veto came two days after one of Nebraska's 11 death-row inmates died in prison 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.

Vivian Tuttle, whose daughter Evonne was murdered in a 2002 bank robbery in Norfolk, said she still wants the three robbers executed. They were sentenced to death for the killings of five people in the bank.

"I want justice for my grandchildren," Vivian Tuttle said. "I want justice for all the other families. They need to have that. So we need to keep the death penalty."

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