Supporters of retaining the death penalty in Nebraska turned in thousands more signatures than necessary on Wednesday to suspend the repeal and place the issue before voters.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty turned in petitions containing 166,692 signatures. Leaders of the group called that a surprisingly large number and said it signaled that voters in the 2016 general election will retain the ultimate penalty for the most heinous murders, reversing the repeal enacted by the State Legislature this spring.
A lot of senators will find out that their constituents have a different view, I really believe that,” said State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, a death penalty supporter who circulated petitions.
Opponents of the death penalty, meanwhile, said that they expect Nebraska voters to come to the same conclusion as 30 of the state’s 49 state lawmakers. Voters will learn that the risks of executing innocent people, the “tremendous waste” of taxpayer dollars and the hurdles in obtaining the necessary drugs have made the death penalty immoral, unjust and unworkable, said the Rev. Stephen Griffith of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
“Just like the legislators they elected, we believe the more Nebraskans learn about the failures of capital punishment, the more they will be inclined to get rid of it,” said Griffith, the group’s new executive director.
The pro-death penalty group formed in June and launched its petition drive just after state lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto and repealed the death penalty.
The vote drew national attention as Nebraska became the first conservative state since North Dakota in 1973 to do away with the death penalty. Currently, 31 states have capital punishment.
But the victory by death penalty opponents in Nebraska now appears to be in jeopardy.
The pro-capital punishment group turned in nearly 3 times as many signatures as is necessary to place the issue on the ballot: 5 % of the state’s registered voters, about 57,000 signatures. The drive must also meet that 5 % threshold in 38 of the state’s 93 counties.
But Nebraskans for the Death Penalty also appears to have a comfortable cushion to suspend the repeal of the death penalty until voters decide its fate at the ballot box.
To do that, the drive needed to submit valid signatures of 10 percent of the state’s voters, or about 114,000 signatures.
Typically, 15 % to 25 % of signatures are invalidated, either because a signer wasn’t registered to vote or for other technical reasons. Even if 25 % of the signatures were disqualified, the drive would still have 125,000 valid signatures, more than enough to suspend the repeal.
State Treasurer Don Stenberg, a former attorney general who was an honorary co-chairman of the pro-death penalty group, said there was “a lot of significance” to collecting so many signatures.
“It’s reflective of the tremendous support that Nebraskans have in keeping the death penalty,” Stenberg said.
He was one of several supporters of capital punishment who spoke at an afternoon press conference, staged in front of an 8-foot-high wall of boxes holding petitions gathered by the group’s nearly 600 paid and volunteer circulators. Signatures were collected in all 93 counties.
Officials in the counties are expected to take more than a month to count and validate the signatures.
Stenberg, as well as the Attorney General’s Office, both said the signatures are presumed valid when they are turned in, until the count proves otherwise.
So, they said, the repeal of the death penalty – which was scheduled to go into effect on Sunday – is on hold until the count is completed.
“There will be some uncertainty in the law,” Stenberg said. But, he added, “It’s not unusual to have uncertainty in the law.”
Nebraska lacks the necessary drugs to carry out an execution via its only legal means, lethal injection. But Stenberg, who as attorney general presided over the state’s last 3 executions in the 1990s, said that if the state obtains the necessary drugs, there’s nothing preventing current Attorney General Doug Peterson from asking for execution dates for the 10 men on death row.
Peterson, on Wednesday, said he was reviewing the cases.
The State Supreme Court would have to approve any requests for execution dates. It’s unclear if the court would do that while a referendum on the issue is pending and after the Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty.
One of the senators who voted for the repeal, Bob Krist of Omaha, said death penalty supporters will need a lot more support to overturn the repeal in the 2016 election.
He said the referendum should not be about vengeance but “justice and fiscal conservatism.” Krist said the state has spent millions and only executed 3 people in the last 6 decades.
He also questioned if the drive collected most of its signatures from Omaha and Lincoln, or from areas like Norfolk and Falls City, where there have been horrible murders and support for capital punishment is higher.
“So here we go. Game on,” Krist said.
Officials with Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said they collected enough signatures to qualify the issue for the ballot in the 1st month, then used a last-minute push to qualify the measure in the necessary 38 counties.
Chris Peterson, the drive’s spokesman, said the group expects to spend about $800,000 to $900,000 on its petition-gathering effort, which included hiring hundreds of paid circulators and an Arizona consulting company.
That spending, he said, is comparable to what a group spent last year to get an initiative petition on the ballot to increase the state’s minimum wage. Nebraskans for Better Wages turned in 134,899 signatures after a 60-day drive.
Ricketts and his family were among the prime financiers for the pro-death penalty drive. The Republican governor contributed $200,000 in the first 2 months, and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, gave $100,000.
Officials with the pro-death penalty group said that petition signers overwhelmingly said they deserved a chance to vote on the issue.
“It’s too important of an issue to be left to the give-and-take of politics,” said Groene.
Vivian Tuttle of Ewing, whose daughter Evonne was 1 of 5 people slain during an attempted robbery at a Norfolk bank in 2002, said she put 8,000 miles on her car seeking support for the referendum drive.
“Wherever I went, people said ‘I want to help do this,'” Tuttle said.
The last time a referendum petition appeared on the ballot was in 2006, when voters were asked whether to overturn a law mandating the consolidation of Class I school districts.
Source: lexch.com, August 29, 2015