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Nebraska Supreme Court upholds validity of death sentences

Nebraska Supreme Court upholds validity of death sentences

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LINCOLN — Inmates on Nebraska’s death row will continue to face the death sentence after a ruling Friday by the Nebraska Supreme Court.

The ACLU of Nebraska had challenged the validity of their death sentences. The group argued that when the Nebraska Legislature repealed capital punishment in 2015, the law was in effect long enough to convert the death sentences of the 11 men then on death row to life in prison.

The civil rights organization claimed that the 2016 vote by Nebraskans to restore capital punishment pertained only to future cases.

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But on Friday, the State Supreme Court agreed with a district court judge’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit.

The court ruled the inmates on death row had other legal avenues to challenge the validity of their death sentences, rather than ruling directly on the declaratory action sought by the ACLU.

Because of the dismissal on technical grounds, the seven-page ruling, written by Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican, did not address the arguments raised by the civil rights organization.

The ACLU, in a statement Friday, said it plans to pursue those issues in individual, post-conviction appeals on behalf of the inmates.

“Today’s ruling does not resolve our clients’ claims that, after the Legislature’s 2015 repeal of the death penalty, they no longer may be executed,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska. “We look forward to resolution of those claims in the individual post-conviction proceedings the court has ruled that each prisoner must undertake.”

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, whose lawyers argued the case for the state, said the Supreme Court reached the correct conclusion.

“The ACLU … requested the court override the will of the people,” Peterson said.

Attorneys with the Attorney General’s Office also argued that the Legislature, regardless of its vote to repeal the death penalty, lacks the power to overturn sentences that were previously imposed by judges.

The ACLU has actively opposed the death penalty, saying it is a waste of government resources, that minorities and low-income offenders are more likely to have the sentence imposed, and that the process lacks transparency.

Supporters of the death penalty, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, say it is a just penalty for the most heinous crimes and that it could be a deterrent to keep those sentenced to life in prison from killing prison guards or other inmates.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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