LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska's death penalty won a last-minute reprieve on Wednesday when a group fighting to keep the punishment announced that it has collected more than enough signatures to stop its repeal and place the issue before voters in 2016.
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's unicameral Legislature voted in May to repeal capital punishment over the objection of Ricketts, becoming the first traditionally conservative state to do so in 42 years.
The pro-death penalty group needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal that was set to go into effect on Sunday. Organizers appear to have exceeded the 10 percent of registered voters hurdle needed to block the repeal until the November 2016 general election.
"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 likely referendum could prompt both sides to pour money into the state in hopes of swaying voters, said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and death penalty expert.
Berman said the Nebraska Legislature's vote to repeal had suggested the death penalty was losing support even in the American Heartland but a referendum would focus attention on Nebraska.
"Certainly it will make Nebraska a kind of ground zero in the death penalty debate," he said.
Opponents said that the death penalty is beyond repair in Nebraska because of repeated legal challenges and expense to the state.
"We believe the more Nebraskans learn about the failures of capital punishment, the more they will be inclined to get rid of it," said the Rev. Stephen Griffith, the new director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The petitions were delivered Wednesday 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.
Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, who supports the death penalty, said in a statement that the signatures are "presumptively valid" until determined otherwise. Stenberg said no one will know the exact number of valid signatures for at least a month, but the state constitution makes clear that petitions go into effect on the day they're submitted.
Even if the law is suspended, Nebraska currently has no way to execute any of the 10 men on death row because its lacks two of the three required lethal injection drugs and has struggled to obtain them legally. The state paid $54,400 in May to order the drugs from a broker in India, but federal authorities have said they can't be legally imported.
Nebraska lawmakers voted by the narrowest possible margin, 30-19, to override Ricketts' veto. Ricketts assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents. The repeal vote was helped by an unusual coalition of conservative state senators and more traditional death penalty opponents who had fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some conservatives said they opposed it for religious and moral reasons, while others cast it as an inefficient government program that wastes tax money.
"What the Nebraska Legislature did is going to have an effect," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, whose group often criticizes how the death penalty is administered. "The message that conservative legislators can reach across the aisle with moderate and liberal legislators — that message is still there and still resonates."
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 was the 19th 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 number of executions in the United States has gradually declined in recent years and only a handful of states led by Texas regularly put inmates to death.
The announcement of the number of signatures 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.
In a statement, Ricketts said the success of the petition drive marked an important step toward protecting public safety.
"I am confident the people of Nebraska will have the opportunity to vote on this issue next year, and judging by the support so far, I expect the death penalty to be retained," Ricketts said.