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US state's lawmakers vote to abolish death penalty

21 May 2015, 11:37

Lincoln - Lawmakers in the central state of Nebraska gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill abolishing the death penalty that would make it the first conservative state to do so since 1973 if the measure becomes law.

The vote margin in the unicameral Legislature was more than enough to override a promised veto from the state's Republican governor.

The Nebraska vote marks a shift in the American death penalty debate because it was bolstered by conservatives who oppose executions for religious reasons, cast it as a waste of taxpayer money and question whether government can be trusted to manage it. Law-and-order conservatives in the United States have traditionally stood among the strongest supporters of capital punishment.

The death penalty has been under intense scrutiny after a series of botched executions last year, while states scrambled to find enough lethal drugs as suppliers restrict their flow to prevent their use in executions.

"Nebraska has a chance to step into history — the right side of history — to take a step that will be beneficial toward the advancement of a civilised society," said Senator Ernie Chambers of Omaha, an independent who has fought for four decades to end the death penalty.

Governor Pete Ricketts, a supporter of capital punishment, said the vote represented a "dark day" for public safety.

Legal challenges

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. Some lawmakers have argued that constant legal challenges will prevent the state from executing anyone in the future.

Senators voted 35-12 to advance the repeal bill through the last of three required votes.

Ricketts has promised to veto the bill, requiring an override vote likely to take place next week. At least 30 votes are needed to pass the bill over his objections.

The governor announced last week that the state recently spent $54 400 to buy new lethal injection drugs from a company in West Bengal, India. Nebraska lost its ability to carry out the punishment in December 2013, when its supply of one key drug expired.

Ricketts argued that, unlike other death-penalty states, Nebraska has imposed the punishment judiciously. Nebraska currently has 11 men on death row.

Ricketts, who is serving his first year in office, argued that the state's inability to carry out executions was a "management problem" that he is committed to fixing.

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, Connecticut in 2012. But the last conservative state to do so was North Dakota in 1973. Thirty-two states and the federal government allow capital punishment.

Nebraska lawmakers passed a death-penalty repeal bill once before, in 1979, but it was vetoed by the then-governor and lawmakers didn't attempt an override.

Republican Senator Beau McCoy of Omaha pointed to one of the Boston Marathon bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was condemned to die last week for his role in the 2013 attack.

- AP

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