Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Nebraska retains the death penalty

Nebraska retains the death penalty

Nebraska lawmakers rejected an attempt to repeal the death penalty on Tuesday, a month after courts left the state with no way to execute its killers.

Twenty senators in the unicameral, officially nonpartisan Legislature voted for the bill to change the maximum penalty to life in prison without possibility of parole. It would have taken 25 votes to advance the debate.

The state Supreme Court ruled in February that the electric chair, the state's sole means of putting inmates to death, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The most likely alternative - lethal injection - is under federal review in a Kentucky case that questions whether the drugs commonly used risk causing excruciating pain, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by June.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican who had been expected to veto the bill if it passed, applauded the vote and said the focus now should be on deciding a legal method of execution for the state.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha introduced the bill to repeal the death penalty, as he has every year for the past three decades. But term limits will push him out of the Capitol after this session.

"Years down the line I can live a lot more comfortably with what I've done these 38 years than what my colleagues can do," Chambers said.

The last execution in the state was in 1997, when Robert Williams was put to death by electrocution for killing three women.

Death row inmate Carey Dean Moore was scheduled to be executed in May last year, but the state Supreme Court halted it less than a week beforehand. The court said at the time it must reconsider whether the electric chair amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, given a "changing legal landscape."

The court said in its February opinion that evidence shows electrocution inflicts "intense pain and agonizing suffering" and that it "has proven itself to be a dinosaur more befitting the laboratory of Baron Frankenstein" than a state prison.

The state attorney general has asked state Supreme Court justices to reconsider their ruling on the electric chair, although he said he doesn't expect them to change their minds. He's still considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ten men now sit on Nebraska's death row.

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