Four months after the Nebraska legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, a petition drive by supporters of capital punishment has succeeded in suspending the law, the secretary of state's office announced Friday. The New York Times reports that the petition drive, which collected more than 143,000 verified signatures, will force a statewide referendum in November 2016, when Nebraska voters will decide whether the state should have a death penalty. The announcement was a victory for Gov. Pete Ricketts, a supporter of capital punishment and a major financial contributor to the petition effort. It was a blow to the coalition of legislators who argued in emotional hearings that the death penalty system in Nebraska was inefficient, expensive and immoral.
It was not clear whether prosecutors would not seek the death penalty or whether the governor's fruitless efforts to obtain lethal injection drugs would succeed. “The thing is a total mess,” said Eric Berger, a law professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “It's uncharted territory for everybody.” He said that the current status of the 10 men on death row could be seen as uncertain. There is also a legal challenge that could invalidate the petition drive. In September, opponents of the death penalty filed a lawsuit against John Gale, the Nebraska secretary of state, arguing that Gov. Ricketts should have been listed as a sponsor of the petition effort, as required by Nebraska law, given that he was a major financial contributor to the signature drive. A second lawsuit said the language on the petition drive was “unlawfully misleading.” The death penalty has not been used in Nebraska since 1997.