A bill to abolish the death penalty faced a filibuster challenge in the Legislature Monday.LB 543, introduced by Sen. Ernie Chamber of Omaha, would get rid of the death penalty in the state and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha attempted to delay the bill from coming to a vote by separating it into three amendments, each requiring its own round of debate.
After eight hours of debate, the bill will be postponed indefinitely unless supporters can muster the 33 votes necessary to end debate and bring the bill itself to a vote.
McCoy said he would make the argument that the death penalty is necessary for some crimes.
“I believe the individuals we currently have on death row belong there,” he said.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who is against the death penalty, responded by filing a motion that would essentially kill the bill as a way of gauging support for it among senators. The parliamentary maneuver meant that those who voted for the motion were against the bill and those who voted against the motion favored repealing the death penalty.
That vote was 18 in favor of killing the bill and 26 against, short of the 33 votes necessary to overcome the filibuster.
Ashford expressed anger over the filibuster attempt.
“Do you think we should have a final vote on Sen. Chambers’ bill?” he asked McCoy.
“This bill deserves a final vote,” Ashford said. “This strategy of stopping votes is ludicrous and it is contrary to the way we are.”
Nebraska has executed three people since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the resumption of executions after a two-year moratorium. Eleven inmates are now on death row in the state.
Senators expressed their support or opposition to the death penalty using moral, religious, fiscal and statistical arguments.
Chambers said the death penalty is applied randomly, arbitrarily and there are no standards for applying it uniformly.
“People who from a distance say they love the death penalty don’t know what a grotesque ceremony it is,” he said.
The debate brought up deep-seated feelings about the issue. Several senators acknowledged that minds, and therefore votes, would probably not be changed.
Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft opposed the bill. She said as a person who is pro-life, she believes it’s the innocent who should be protected.
“There should be just punishment of cold-blooded murders,” Brasch said. “The punishment does fit the crime.”
Some senators had a different definition of being pro-life, including Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who said it should include those on death row.
“Everyone of these lives deserves protection under the law,” he said.
Among the bill’s supporters was Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha who said the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment and thus unconstitutional.
Lathrop said repealing it would reflect the “evolving standards of decency in our society.”
“We can continue to put money into a system that doesn’t work, that will ultimately be unconstitutional, or we can stop that now,” he said.