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A good portion of this past week was spent debating the death penalty. LB 543 would change the maximum penalty for first degree murder in Nebraska from death to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Senator Ernie Chambers introduced similar legislation for more than 30 years until he left the Legislature in 2008. Back after a four-year break due to term limits, he again took up his fight to repeal the death penalty.
After eight hours of debate, Senator Chambers made a motion to invoke cloture, which immediately shuts off debate and allows a vote to be taken on the advancement of the bill. A cloture motion requires 33 votes. The motion fell short on a vote of 28-21. After an unsuccessful cloture motion, the bill is pulled from the agenda. It will not be debated again this year.
There are currently 11 people on Nebraska’s death row, including two who were sentenced to death for murders committed in Richardson County. The last execution in Nebraska was in 1997. In 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair as the sole means of imposing the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The Legislature passed legislation in 2009 to change the method of executing the death penalty to lethal injection. The state has experienced difficulty in obtaining the lethal drugs, as pharmaceutical companies don’t want their products associated with executions. Thirty-two states, the U.S. Government, and the U.S. Military impose the death penalty.
Those opposing the death penalty emphasize the high cost, citing statistics that show the average number of appeals filed by someone on death row is 7.76 compared to 1.64 by those sentenced to life, with the average length of an appeal lasting more than 13 years for those on death row compared with almost 6 years for those sentenced to life in prison. Furthermore, the cost of a death penalty case is approximately $3 million compared to the cost of a life without parole case of just over $1 million. Opponents also emphasize the arbitrary nature of administering the death penalty.
Although no longer in the majority in the Legislature, but of sufficient number to block a vote on the advancement of the bill, senators supporting the death penalty argue that cost estimates are overstated and that the death penalty is an important and necessary factor in the sentencing process. They believe that it serves as a deterrent, especially for those already serving a life sentence. Proponents point out that the death penalty is reserved for those committing the most heinous of crimes. Statistics show that it is only sought in approximately 7% of all murders and actually imposed in less than 1%.
The Governor handed down his first veto of this session, returning LB 553 without his signature and with his objections. This legislation sought to address the shortfall in the school retirement plan. The Governor objected to the increase in the state contribution rate and felt that the long-term revisions should be studied further before implementing the changes. After some senators criticized the Governor for his absence when the Retirement Committee was studying this issue, the Legislature voted to override his veto on a 32-1 vote.
During these last several weeks of the legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the issues before us. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.