Nebraska could become first conservative state in 40 years to abolish the death penalty

Democrats and Republicans agree, but for different reasons

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The Independent US

In the very heartland of the US, something startling is taking place.

A coalition of Republicans and Democrats is coming together, united in the belief that the death penalty needs to be scrapped. There are a number of challenges to overcome, but if the politicians have their way, Nebraska could become the first conservative state to abolish executions in four decades.

Reports suggest the two factions that have combined at the state legislature in the city of Lincoln, have come to their beliefs for different reasons; Democrats believe the death penalty is unfair and is overly used against minorities, while Republicans say it has become an inefficient government programme, bound up with red tape.

"Everybody has got their own reasons for doing this," Republican Senator Colby Coach told The Independent. "We are not there yet. I am optimistic but I am also cautious."

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Governor Pete Ricketts has threatened to veto the legislation

“I don’t think it’s that there is more sympathy for the people on death row. It’s about efficiency,” said Stacy Andersen of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a campaign group.

As it is, the death penalty operation in Nebraska has effectively ground to a halt. There are currently 11 prisoners sitting on death row but the last prisoner was put to death in 1997.

In 2008, the state’s highest court outlawed the electric chair. The Associated Press said that after Nebraska switched to lethal injections, the process of appeals meant the supply of sodium thiopental - used as part of the cocktail of drugs - expired and officials could not restock its reserve.

In March, members of Nebraska’s unique unicameral chamber voted 30-13 to repeal the death penalty, but they must secure two further votes. Even then, Republican Governor Pete Ricketts has promised a veto. The elected members would then have to rally to overturn the veto.

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The last conservative state to abolish the death penalty was North Dakota in 1973. In the past six years, four more liberal states have ended capital punishment: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012 and Maryland in 2013. Thirty-two states still have death penalty laws on their books.

Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Centre in Washington, said he believed the moves taking place in Nebraksa reflected a general change in the country.

“Over the past 20 years there has been a shift from 80 per cent support to the death penalty to a recent survey that found just 56 per cent,” he said. He said the shift in attitude was most obvious among younger people and minorities.

Yet he said attitudes among conservatives had also clearly moved. “For conservatives, it’s less about morality but rather a public policy issue,” he said.

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