LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature’s monumental vote Wednesday to repeal the death penalty intensified a political, religious and philosophical debate over the meaning of justice.

As lawmakers waded into an emotionally charged two-hour discussion, Gov. Pete Ricketts made a last-minute attempt to turn votes against the repeal but ended up losing ground. Lawmakers voted 32-15 to pass Legislative Bill 268 — two more votes than the measure received on the two previous rounds of debate.

With the governor vowing to veto the repeal bill, attention now turns to an override vote that will likely take place next week. An override will require a minimum of 30 votes.

Repealing capital punishment has been one of the surprising and defining developments of this legislative session, the first for 18 senators newly elected last year. What made this repeal effort different from those in the past was that it drew support from a significant number of Republican senators.

Wednesday’s vote elated repeal supporters and left death penalty advocates shaking their heads in disappointment. The bill replaces lethal injection with a maximum punishment of life in prison.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has led the effort to abolish the death penalty for 40 years, expressed “total and utter confidence that we will override the governor’s veto.”

“We got the state out of the killing business today,” he said.

Ricketts issues statement during debate

The governor sent out a statement during the debate urging lawmakers to keep Nebraska among the 32 states with the death penalty. He amplified his stance in follow-up comments to reporters before the vote was taken.

“It’s looking like it could be a very dark day for public safety,” he said. “The Nebraska Legislature is completely out of touch with the overwhelming number of people I talk to.”

Conservative lawmakers who voted for repeal cited the higher costs of carrying out a death sentence versus life in prison. Some said they have come to oppose the death penalty for religious reasons, while others said it’s pointless to keep a punishment on the books that’s rarely implemented.

“I’m pro-life from conception until when God calls somebody home,” said Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue. “I’m not going to quibble over innocent life versus those who are guilty for what they have done. This is a matter of conscience.”

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion chided 18 of his fellow Republicans who joined with 13 Democrats and one independent to push the repeal through.

“There should be no doubt this is a liberal Legislature that could care less about the people of Nebraska,” Kintner said moments after the vote.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte admonished conservatives who would help bring about the demise of capital punishment. Moments before the crucial vote was cast to break the filibuster, he promised to work against the re-election of any senator who voted to cut off debate but against the bill itself.

“This is disgusting, and I don’t care what anybody says,” Groene said. “Congeniality out the window, I represent people, and people understand justice, and they are appalled, absolutely appalled.”

Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, who led the two-hour filibuster, said he will now gear up to defend the death penalty during the override debate. But if the legislation survives, he pledged to introduce a bill next year to reinstate capital punishment and bring a constitutional amendment to let the voters decide.

Action not retroactive

Wednesday’s action would not apply retroactively to the 11 men on Nebraska’s death row. However, it would leave the state with no way to carry out their executions.

The governor and McCoy lamented that sentences affirmed by juries, judges and appellate courts could not be carried out against those responsible for the Rulo cult killings, the Norfolk bank shootings and other infamous murders.

The vote drew a swift rebuke from JoAnn Brandon, the mother of 21-year-old Teena Brandon, one of three people murdered in 1993 in Richardson County. One of the two killers is on death row in a case that inspired the film, “Boys Don’t Cry.”

“I ask them how they would feel if it was one of their family members, especially a child who was that young,” Brandon said.

Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer, who voted against repeal, was visibly disappointed after the vote. His community saw five people shot dead in a botched bank robbery in 2002.

He said he highly doubted the Legislature would side with the governor and sustain a veto of the bill. “I really think that people voted their conscience today. People’s consciences don’t change,” Scheer said.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, who voted for repealing the death penalty, said the vote showed that society has come to understand that capital punishment is not necessary in a civilized world.

Krist said the Legislature’s recent investigations into the state corrections system, and the realization that reform was needed, played into Wednesday’s vote.

“We committed ourselves to make changes, and this was the biggest change,” he said.

Sen. Gloor switches vote

Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island voted against the repeal bill on the first two rounds but voted for its passage Wednesday. He said the more he listened to his colleagues and studied the legal battles surrounding executions, the more he concluded the state has capital punishment in name only.

“I don’t think we’re going to put anybody to death in this state again,” he said.

During the solemn and poignant debate, Chambers said no argument could change the minds of people who had reached a principled decision on a very difficult issue.

“The record should be crystal clear on what it is we are doing. It is historic,” Chambers said. “We have the opportunity to take one small step for the Legislature, a giant leap for civilization.”  [More quotes from Wednesday's debate »]

Indeed, the Legislature voted on one other occasion — 36 years ago — to repeal the death penalty. But then-Gov. Charles Thone vetoed the measure, and Chambers couldn’t rally enough senators to support an override.

The State of Nebraska has officially administered the death penalty since 1901, when hangings were moved from individual counties to the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

The state last carried out an execution in 1997, when the method was the electric chair. Lawmakers adopted lethal injection in 2009, but two of the necessary drugs expired before they could be used.

Last week, the governor announced the purchase of a new supply of drugs in an effort to restore the state’s ability to carry out an execution. Death penalty opponents, however, said questions about the drugs would lead to new legal challenges.

Shift in public opinion

Robert Dunham, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, said a repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska would reflect what’s happening nationally.

Public opinion has shifted, Dunham said, with national polls in recent years showing that Americans, when presented with alternatives to capital punishment, support them.

Nebraska would be the first state this year to repeal the death penalty, according to Dunham. An effort in Montana earlier this year ended in a tie vote. In Delaware, despite the governor’s pledge to sign a repeal bill, legislation there is being held up in the state senate.

Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a former death penalty supporter whose views have changed, played a major role in the repeal effort. He worked to persuade his fellow Republicans to allow the state to move away from what he called a failed policy.

“I think we were able to show them abolishing the death penalty was consistent with what they told their constituents,” he said. “I’ll find, I’ll root out and I’ll get rid of inefficient government programs.”

World-Herald staff writers Paul Hammel and Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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Ahead of Wednesday's vote, World-Herald Lincoln Bureau chief Paul Hammel appeared on "The Rachel Maddow Show" Tuesday night to discuss the vote and Gov. Ricketts' move to buy new lethal injection drugs for Nebraska.

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Timeline: A history of the death penalty in Nebraska

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