Sen. Ernie Chambers has fought to repeal capital punishment throughout his four decades in the Legislature. He has two more years to serve.

LINCOLN — State lawmakers fell far short of advancing a bill to repeal the death penalty on Thursday, with only 17 of the 49 senators supporting repeal.

Much of the sometimes contentious debate centered on whether repealing capital punishment would ignore the will of Nebraska voters, who voted in 2016 to overturn the Legislature’s repeal of the death penalty.

State Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, the Legislature’s youngest member, said repealing capital punishment now would show “flagrant disregard” for the vote, which restored the death penalty by 61% to 39%.

Others disagreed, including Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has led the fight to repeal the death penalty during his four-decade tenure in the Legislature. LB 44 was his latest bill to eliminate the death penalty.

Chambers, the Legislature’s oldest senator, said matters like death should not be subject to a public vote, quoting from the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the states’ capital punishment policies then in effect. Many states then amended their policies and reinstated the death penalty, including Nebraska, which is one of 30 states that still have the punishment.

The senator said that many heinous murders do not result in the death penalty and that every other developed country in the world has banned its use.

“The death penalty is degrading,” he said, “and its very existence runs against what this country supposedly stands for.”

Chambers — who has only the 2019 and 2020 sessions to serve before he’s term-limited — said he does not believe in miracles and doubted that his effort to repeal capital punishment would be successful this year.

Debate on the measure delved into biblical teachings about killing, the evolving position of the Roman Catholic Church and the role of Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family in financing the campaign that restored capital punishment.

Some senators blamed the death penalty for the $28 million court judgment against Gage County, where six innocent people were wrongfully convicted in connection with a murder there after being threatened with the death penalty. Some gave false testimony, and others agreed to falsely plead guilty — but DNA evidence later tied the slaying to an Oklahoma man.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, said if it was any other state program, it would have been repealed long ago because it is so ineffective and so randomly imposed. He called it “death by incarceration” because inmates sit for 25 years or longer before their appeals are exhausted.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha said senators can’t consider themselves “pro-life” and support the death penalty. But Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln said that she’s “pro-innocent life” and that heinous crimes deserve the ultimate penalty.

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Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said that if senators really respected the “will of the people,” they would join him in protest over the Ricketts administration’s slow progress in implementing another voter-approved measure, the one to expand Medicaid.

Debate became heated at times. One issue was whether conservatives in the body were forcing a vote on LB 44 so they could get lawmakers to record their support or opposition and use that in future elections. After the 2015 vote to repeal, three death penalty opponents lost reelection bids, in part because of their votes.

One death penalty foe, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, said the vote was taken Thursday in recognition of Chambers’ long effort to do away with capital punishment. This year might be Chambers’ last chance to get a vote on the issue, she said.

The vote was 25-17 against advancing the bill, with seven senators either absent or present and not voting. LB 44 is not likely to return to the agenda this year, but Chambers could introduce another repeal bill in 2020.

Chambers, who is a master of using legislative rules to block legislation, pledged to “get even” with senators who opposed him during the rest of the 2019 session. The session ends in early June.

Nebraska carried out its first execution in 21 years and its first by lethal injection on Aug. 14. Carey Dean Moore, 60, decided to drop all appeals of his death sentence for the 1979 killings of Omaha cabdrivers Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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