Monday, 24 March 2008

No urgency this time on executions

No urgency this time on executions

Updated 03/24/2008 11:31:41 AM EDT
LINCOLN -- The Nebraska Supreme Court last month decided to pull the plug on the electric chair. This week, the Legislature will consider whether to close the execution chamber for good.

Lawmakers on Tuesday will
begin debating Legislative Bill 1063, which would abolish the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without parole.

It will be the third time in a little more than a year that the Legislature has debated capital punishment.

In 2007, lawmakers fell one vote short of advancing, from first-round debate, a bill to repeal the death penalty. Death penalty opponents then regrouped and proposed to sharply restrict death sentences. That fell two votes short of advancing.

The 2007 debate came before the State Supreme Court's decision to ban the electric chair, before the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection, and before New Jersey became the first state in more than 40 years to abolish capital punishment.

State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, long the Legislature's leading opponent of the death penalty, already has declared a victory of sorts.

For more than 10 years, Chambers had blocked legislation to switch from the electric chair to lethal injection. In the aftermath of electrocution being ruled cruel and unusual punishment, Nebraska is left without a legal means to carry out executions.

Chambers has vowed to keep any new execution method from being approved before he leaves the Legislature at year's end because of term limits.

Amy Miller, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union-Nebraska and board president of Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty, said opponents are in a better position to defeat capital punishment.

"We're fighting a proactive battle because we want to eliminate the death penalty. But people who want to keep the death penalty have to come up with a new recipe for death,'' she said.

"We need to just say we're done and walk away from it,'' she said.

Attorney General Jon Bruning said a proposal to authorize lethal injection will be put before lawmakers in 2009 at the latest. It's also possible that Gov. Dave Heineman could call the Legislature into a special session to consider lethal injection, Bruning said.

"Lawmakers should vote no on the repeal and on any amendments that claim to be a compromise,'' Bruning said. "This is one of these issues where you're either for it or you're not. There really isn't a lot of middle ground on the death penalty.''

Bruning and other death penalty supporters dispute any argument that Nebraskans may be turning away from supporting the death penalty.

Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha noted that the Supreme Court disapproved only of the method of execution, not the death penalty itself.

"I am a strong supporter of the death penalty, and nothing has occurred to change that,'' Lautenbaugh said. "I feel I am in tune with my district wants.''

Some lawmakers said Nebraska's lack of an execution method takes the urgency away from calls to repeal capital punishment.

"It's been 10 years since we've had an execution. We don't have a workable death penalty. Let's still leave it on the books,'' said Sen. Carroll Burling of Kenesaw.

Death penalty opponents may be unable to garner more than the 24 votes they collected last year. In a pre-session survey of lawmakers, 26 of the 49 told The World-Herald they would vote to keep capital punishment.

Heineman has promised to veto a repeal bill if it reaches his desk, meaning death penalty opponents would need at least a 30-vote majority to override a veto if they are to succeed.

"This issue is difficult and emotional, but ultimately our justice system operates most effectively if we do not tolerate atrocious criminal acts,'' Heineman said.

In interviews, some lawmakers who previously voted to repeal indicated they may be wavering.

"I don't know how I'm going to vote,'' said Sen. Kent Rogert of Tekamah. "It will pull me back and forth the entire day. It always does.''

Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha will lead the debate, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He said the death penalty does not lend itself to vote-counting in advance.

"It's a life-and-death issue,'' he said. "It will be decided on the floor as part of the debate.''

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