Nebraska Gov. Ricketts vetoes death penalty repeal

As promised, Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska vetoed legislation that would repeal the death penalty for capital murder. The bill passed last week on a bipartisan 32-15 vote. Ricketts explained:

“This is a matter of public safety,” said Ricketts, flanked by 18 death penalty supporters, including Attorney General Doug Peterson, senators, law enforcement, prosecutors and the family of a murder victim.

“We need to have strong sentencing. We need to be sure our prosecutors have the tools to be able to put these hardened criminals behind bars.”

Prison guards also need to be protected, he said, as evidenced by a recent riot at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, where two guards were assaulted in the early hours of the uprising.

“And without the threat of additional sanctions on these dangerous criminals, I am concerned for their safety,” Ricketts said.

How does the example of a recent prison riot—when killing a prison guard will still lawfully get you the death penalty—provide support for the death penalty? Isn’t the fact that the riot occurred in spite of the availability of capital punishment an argument against its deterrent effect? Moreover, how does repealing the death penalty take away a tool to put criminals behind bars? The bill doesn’t legalize killing police officers or prison guards. It feels like Ricketts is in search of a rationale. Better arguments include: (1) the juries have spoken and should be respected; (2) the death penalty represents our community’s expression of outrage at these particular types of crimes; or (3) these criminals deserve the worst we can constitutionally do to them.

Nebraska, like the others states that use lethal injection, is struggling to come up with the drugs necessary to carry out executions. Nebraska uses a three-drug cocktail. A similar procedure is currently being challenged at the Supreme Court.

Death penalty repeal in Nebraska has largely been cast in terms of human decency and “humane justice,” and got outspoken support from Catholic bishops. A vote on veto override could come as soon as this afternoon, although some state lawmakers who voted for repeal have suggested they might reconsider. If they override Ricketts, Nebraska would be the first conservative state to repeal the death penalty in forty years.