Nebraska’s death penalty won a last-minute reprieve yesterday when a group fighting to keep capital punishment said it has collected more than enough signatures to stop its repeal and place the issue before voters in 2016, the Associated Press reports. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which was heavily financed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state’s counties. Nebraska’s legislature voted in May to repeal capital punishment over the objection of Ricketts, becoming the first traditionally conservative state to do so in 42 years.
The pro-death penalty group needed about 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal that was set to go into effect on Sunday. Organizers appear to have exceeded the 10 percent of registered voters hurdle needed to block the repeal until the November 2016 general election. The likely referendum could prompt both sides to pour money into the state in hopes of swaying voters, said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor and death penalty expert. Berman said the legislature’s vote to repeal had suggested the death penalty was losing support even in the U.S. heartland but a referendum “certainly … will make Nebraska a kind of ground zero in the death penalty debate.”