LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature has shifted on the death penalty, but perhaps not far enough to end capital punishment this year.
A test vote during floor debate Monday suggested that Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha may have 26 votes, one more than necessary, to pass his bill repealing the death penalty. But he will need 33 votes to end a filibuster by those who want to keep capital punishment on the books.
If death penalty supporters successfully extend debate, they can ensure that the bill doesn't come up for a vote this session. It was a strategy decried by Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who supports repealing the death penalty.
“These are the bills that define us as an institution, as a people,” he said. “Please give us an up or down vote.”
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, one of the Legislature's staunchest death penalty supporters, said he is unconvinced by arguments that capital punishment doesn't deter crime or that it's fraught with racial disparity. “I won't apologize for doing everything I can within the rules to prevent the repeal,” he said.
Opponents of capital punishment were not giving up the fight as the bill headed into a second day of debate today. If they manage to pass the repeal bill, however, they likely would face the governor's veto. They would then need at least 30 votes for an override.
Still, lawmakers who oppose the death penalty were pleased when a motion to kill the bill failed by a vote of 26 to 18. As recently as 2009, only 13 senators voted in favor of abolishing executions.
Legislative Bill 543 would make life in prison without the possibility of parole the state's harshest penalty for murder.
Nebraska is one of 32 states that have the death penalty. Three men have been executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1973.
The roughly six hours of floor debate on Monday included speeches from senators whose views on the death penalty have changed.
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln told of going to the State Penitentiary the night that Harold Lamont Otey was executed in 1994 and seeing the spectacle of people cheering. But he also expressed a common view that years spent appealing death penalty cases can turn killers into celebrities.
“Let the perpetrators of these crimes walk a little 5-by-10 track in their cell until they die, and let us speak of them no more,” he said.
Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell said that in years past she could justify the high cost of death penalty cases if “fair and equitable justice” resulted. But it hasn't, she said, including for the victims' families, who must endure the horror of their losses over and over. “We can't take the grief away with the death penalty,” Campbell said.
The supporters of repeal hoped that other key conservative senators would join their effort, including Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial and Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island.
Both voted for the motion to bracket the bill, which would have killed it for the session.
Christensen said he was more open-minded about the issue this year than he has been in the past. But his constituents in southwest Nebraska who overwhelming favor capital punishment prompted him to oppose the repeal, Christensen said.
While the debate was mostly respectful, it did produce some tense exchanges.
Ashford harshly questioned tactics employed by Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy to divide debate into three parts, which would prolong the discussion.
Ashford, a legislative veteran, said he was growing tired of lawmakers using the rules to avoid a vote on controversial measures.
He described McCoy's tactics as trying to “show them that the minority will win out.” He said the repeal bill “deserves a final vote, yea or nay.”
McCoy, a leading supporter of the death penalty, denied that that was his intent. He said his move to divide the question would provide several votes on the issue.
Chambers, a master at blocking votes on bills, said that was a lie and called McCoy “gutless” for trying to derail the bill.
Repealing the death penalty is a top priority for Chambers, who has offered similar bills throughout his 39-year legislative career.
On Monday, he talked about spending the final hours with death row inmate John Joubert, who kidnapped, tortured and killed two Sarpy County boys in 1983 and later admitted to killing a third boy in Maine. Joubert was executed in the electric chair in 1996.
“People who say from a distance they love the death penalty don't know what a grotesque ceremony it is,” Chambers said.
Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont also brought up Joubert, saying that he recalls how afraid he was as a child because of the slayings of boys who were about his age. He asked his colleagues to consider what those boys might have done with their lives had they lived.
Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege offered an amendment that added language about the value of human life, “born and unborn.” The amendment passed 26-6.
Carlson, who opposes the repeal effort, later withdrew the amendment. He said he wanted to make a point about protecting the lives of the unborn on a day when the discussion centered on preventing the executions of the guilty.
Debate also focused on the higher cost to the state of death penalty cases compared with killers sentenced to life in prison.
Death penalty supporters argued that the cost of justice can't be counted.
“Justice is not up for sale to the lowest bidder,” Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion said.
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