LINCOLN — Nebraskans wielded their veto power on Tuesday, voting overwhelmingly to restore the death penalty and nullify a historic 2015 vote by state lawmakers to repeal capital punishment.
Rural voters carried the day, voting to "repeal the repeal" by margins as large as 4-to-1 in counties outside Lincoln and Omaha.
Douglas County, seen as a key stronghold of death-penalty opposition, appeared to narrowly support restoring the death penalty, while Lancaster County was the only county in the state to support retaining the death penalty repeal.
Officials with Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said Tuesday’s vote affirmed their belief that if voters were given the chance, they would vote to keep the death penalty for the most heinous murders.
"The Legislature made a big mistake on a very important issue," said Bob Evnen of Lincoln, a co-founder of the pro-capital punishment group, which conducted the successful petition drive that placed the death penalty referendum on Tuesday’s ballot.
State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a leader with the anti-death penalty group, Retain a Just Nebraska, said he was disappointed with the outcome but not the effort.
"This debate was worth having," Coash said.
Some voters, he said, may have been swayed by recent, high-profile murders, citing the case of Nikko Jenkins, who killed four people in Omaha shortly after his release from prison in 2013. A trial this fall in Omaha, which ended with Dr. Anthony Garcia being found guilty of the gruesome slayings of four people connected to Creighton University’s pathology department, also was a factor, he said.
"It’s really hard to look at those kinds of crimes and not have an emotional response," Coash said.
State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who sponsored the bill to repeal the death penalty, said Tuesday night that the vote demonstrated to him that Nebraska remains a "hidebound and backward state."
"I have been in this activity too long to be surprised by what happened tonight," he said. "It will not dishearten me, it will not deter me."
Chambers said he would be introducing a new bill in January to get rid of the death penalty.
Tuesday’s vote marked the second time lawmakers had been rebuffed in an effort to repeal the death penalty. In 1979, then-Gov. Charlie Thone vetoed a repeal bill, and the Legislature lacked the votes to override it.
Nebraska, a conservative, law-and-order state, gained the national spotlight after the Legislature’s landmark vote and subsequent narrow override of a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
At the time of the repeal vote, Nebraska stood as the first conservative state to do away with capital punishment since North Dakota in 1973. A group of conservative senators, citing the high cost of the death penalty and its rare use, joined with Chambers in voting to repeal the ultimate penalty.
But the victory proved short-lived.
Shortly after the Legislature’s vote, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty formed to put the issue before the state’s voters.
Using contributions from the governor, his parents and others, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty collected more than 143,000 signatures of voters during the summer of 2015.
Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs and the online brokerage firm TD Ameritrade donated $300,000 of his own money to aid the pro-death penalty group, according to the most recent campaign spending reports. His father, Joe, pitched in $100,000, and his mother, Marlene, donated $25,000.
Those donations were among the $1.3 million spent through early November by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.
Retain a Just Nebraska also got some high-profile help, collecting $2.7 million through mid-October. Its contributors included Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon, who gave $1,500. One of its major donors was a Massachusetts organization, the Proteus Action League, which gave $650,000 this year and $600,000 last year.
Death penalty opponents also argued capital punishment could possibly take an innocent person’s life. They pointed to the case of the Beatrice Six, in which six people were wrongly convicted in the 1985 rape and slaying of a Beatrice woman. Several of the six said their fear of the death penalty factored into their decision to falsely confess.
A group of retired judges was among those calling for an end to capital punishment, but death penalty supporters countered with their own group of Nebraska sheriffs and prosecutors who said that for the most heinous crimes, death was the most appropriate sentence.
"It’s not about vengeance, it’s about justice," said Pierce County Sheriff Rick Eberhardt, who collected more than 3,000 signatures to help put the death penalty referendum on the ballot.
On Tuesday night, the sheriff sat quietly in a meeting room at Omaha’s Marriott Regency Hotel with three members of the family of Evonne Tuttle, who was shot and killed along with four others during a botched bank robbery in Norfolk in 2002. The three gunmen all are on Nebraska’s death row.
It wasn’t a celebration, said Eberhardt and the others, but affirmation that the state’s residents still support the death penalty.
"It was the right thing to do," said Christine Tuttle, Evonne’s 32-year-old daughter, of Tuesday’s vote.
"We’re going to get justice. It’s going to happen," said Evonne’s mother, Vivian, of Ewing, Nebraska.
Evnen said he hoped the significant margin in favor of restoring the death penalty would convince state lawmakers that they need to work with Ricketts, instead of against him, to adopt a new death penalty protocol.
Coash, however, said that Tuesday’s vote hasn’t changed a thing. Nebraska, he said, still lacks the drugs needed to carry out a lethal injection execution.
"It doesn’t fix the problems that the Legislature saw," he said.