With death penalty back, Nebraska looks ahead to executions

AP News
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Posted: Nov 09, 2016 6:24 PM

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Now that Nebraska voters have restored the death penalty, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Wednesday he plans to renew his focus on resuming executions despite numerous hurdles that have kept the state from doing so since 1997.

Ricketts offered few specifics during a post-election phone conference with reporters, but said he planned to meet with Attorney General Doug Peterson, a fellow death penalty supporter, to discuss how to move forward.

Voters reinstated the death penalty in Tuesday's election, more than a year after lawmakers abolished the punishment over Ricketts' veto. Death penalty supporters responded with a statewide ballot campaign partially funded by Ricketts that prevented the law from going into effect until voters decided whether to overturn the Legislature's decision.

"The people of Nebraska have spoken," Ricketts said in the call from China, where he was leading an international trade mission.

Ricketts declined to say exactly how the state will acquire the lethal injection drugs it currently lacks or whether Nebraska will change its protocol. He said he would discuss those issues with Peterson when they meet.

Peterson said his office is looking at changes to the state's three-drug protocol, using drugs that are easier to obtain and likely to survive a court challenge. He said he couldn't offer a timeline for when the state might move forward with executions "because there might be different variables that affect that timeline."

Nebraska has struggled to obtain all of the necessary drugs, and Ricketts previously said his administration would halt its efforts until after Tuesday's statewide vote.

Ricketts said the vote demonstrates clear public support for capital punishment in Nebraska despite the Legislature's vote.

"It's an important tool to protect our law enforcement officers," Ricketts said. "Obviously, that's a different view than what the Legislature took."

Meanwhile, death penalty opponents said they would continue fighting the punishment and working to prevent the state from executing any of the 10 men currently on death row.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who sponsored the historic 2015 repeal law after decades of failed attempts, said he plans to reintroduce a bill to abolish the punishment when lawmakers convene in January. Because of term limits and incumbents who were defeated, however, it's not clear whether senators would pass such a measure again next year.

Chambers, who is black and known as a firebrand, said he believes some white voters wanted to reinstate it because they associated his name with the repeal.

"There definitely was a racial aspect to it," Chambers said. He added that he's not surprised by the outcome in what he called a "hick-ified, backward state."

Chambers said the issue probably wouldn't have made it to the ballot and passed without support from Ricketts, who donated $300,000 of his own money to the Nebraskans for the Death Penalty campaign. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty raised $1.3 million for its effort but was outspent by a death penalty opposition group, which received nearly $2.7 million. Both sides blanketed the state with television, radio and social media ads and mailings to voters.

Nebraska's last execution was 1997, using the electric chair, and the state has never executed an inmate using its current three-drug lethal injection protocol. Ricketts announced last year that the state had spent $54,400 to buy two of the required drugs, but the state never received them because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said they couldn't legally be imported.

Dan Parsons, a spokesman for the death penalty opposition group Retain a Just Nebraska, said it's unlikely the state will carry out an execution anytime soon. Bob Evnen, a Lincoln attorney who campaigned for the death penalty, said policymakers should read the vote as a signal that they need to push harder to resume executions.

In a series of interviews Tuesday, voters who supported the death penalty said they view it as an appropriate punishment for what prosecutors deem the most heinous crimes.

"If there's any doubt at all whether the individual in question is guilty, then no, we shouldn't (execute that person)," said James Stewart, 55, of Lincoln. "But if we're 100 percent sure, it should be a done deal. I don't want to feed them breakfast, lunch and supper every day. It's costing us a ton of money."

Some supporters of the death penalty at an Omaha polling place cited the 2013 slaying a woman by Nikko Jenkins, who had only weeks earlier been released from prison, where he had spent most of his adult life.

Jenkins has since pleaded no contest and been convicted of killing Juan Uribe-Pena, Jorge Cajiga-Ruiz, Curtis Bradford and Andrea Kruger in the summer of 2013. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against him.

"That happened just a couple of blocks from here," said Jordon Scott, 39, of Omaha, referring to Kruger's shooting death. "Without the death penalty, he'll be hanging out on my dime for the rest of his life."

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Associated Press writer Margery A. Beck contributed from Omaha.