Nebraska death penalty foes focusing on practical problems

By: 
GRANT SCHULTE, Associated Press
Staff Writer

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A coalition that wants to keep Nebraska's ban on the death penalty says it will focus on the practical problems of carrying out executions in the buildup to next year's statewide vote on capital punishment.

A state senator and law professor speaking on behalf of Nebraskans for Public Safety argued Wednesday that the state will face major challenges if voters decide to reinstate the death penalty in the November general election.

Nebraska lawmakers abolished the death penalty in May over Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto, prompting a statewide petition campaign that placed the issue on the 2016 ballot.

Ricketts announced this month that the state will not try to obtain lethal injection drugs until voters decide in November whether to keep capital punishment, but his administration is looking at changes to the protocol that governs how an execution would be carried out. State officials have struggled to import the drugs despite paying $54,400 to a distributor in India.

Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln said lawmakers were assured in 2009 that adopting the state's current lethal injection protocol would allow executions to proceed, but none have so far. Nebraska's last execution was in 1997, using the electric chair.

Coash said he and other supporters of the repeal have reached out to voters to argue that capital punishment is no longer practical, even if voters support the concept. He said opponents want to dispel the notion that the state could resume executions if voters reinstated the punishment.

"When you strip away the emotion ... and get down to the nuts and bolts of whether we can do this or not, most Nebraskans are willing to say 'Let's get rid of it,'" Coash said. "That's the challenge, to share that message."

University of Nebraska law professor Eric Berger said changing the protocol would be difficult, expensive and a short-term fix because the drugs used are becoming increasingly scarce. Nebraska's protocol calls for sodium thiopental, an anesthetic; pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant that induces paralysis; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

Berger said the death penalty is on hold in at least 10 states because of problems and legal disputes surrounding their lethal injection drugs.

"This is a track record that should not inspire confidence," he said.

Nebraska currently has 10 men on death row.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the administration is looking at the protocols of other states that have successfully carried out death sentences.

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