Senators supporting a bill to repeal the Nebraska death penalty failed to muster enough votes Tuesday to overcome a filibuster.A vote to stop debate on LB 543, introduced by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, failed 28-20 opposed, five votes shy of the 33 needed to bring the measure to a vote.
The result means the bill to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is essentially dead.
Chambers vowed to come back next session with another repeal bill, as he has done each of the 37 years he has been in the Legislature.
“Whatever happens today, it will not be the end of this issue,” he said.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, in a last-minute bid to reach 33 votes, introduced an amendment to the bill that would have prevented the repeal from being retroactively applied.
Several senators had expressed concern in previous debate that the bill would repeal the sentences of the 11 inmates currently on death row in the state.
“I implore this body to keep this bill alive,” Ashford said.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said the filibuster prevented "this important issue" from being enacted.
“There’s enough votes on this floor to repeal the death penalty,” he said -- a claim that opponents of the repeal contested.
Sen Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha said even though 26 senators voted against postponing the bill until the end of the session, essentially killing it, two of those votes came from senators who do not support the underlying bill.
The bill’s supporters maintained that the death penalty is not applied uniformly, and open to racial and socioeconomic bias.
“When does this happen and when doesn’t it happen?” Lathrop asked, referring to a death sentence.
Chambers read from a list of homicide cases in Nebraska in which he says prosecutors did not seek the death penalty despite their ability to do so.
“Practically all these cases I’m reading to you were white people,” he said.
Senators opposed to repeal insisted that some crimes are too heinous not to impose death as a punishment, and that any problems in the system could be addressed through legislation.
Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial said he would introduce a bill next session that would only allow a death sentence in cases where there is incontrovertible DNA or video evidence.
He said this would eliminate any social biases in the system.
Lautenbaugh said it doesn’t make sense to compare homicide cases where the death penalty was sought with those where it was not because those decisions depend on the available evidence and witnesses.
“Every case is different,” he said.
He said the advancement of technology and forensic science make it less likely that an innocent person could be sentenced to death.
“We have less reason to doubt the fairness of the death penalty today,” Lautenbaugh said.