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Nebraska Legislators Overturn Governor's Veto Of Death Penalty Repeal

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's something that hasn't happened in a conservative state in decades. Today, lawmakers in Nebraska voted to abolish the death penalty. The 30-to-19 vote overrode a veto by Republican Governor Pete Ricketts who had lobbied hard to prevent what happened this afternoon. The legislation to repeal capital punishment came from Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers. He had tried to repeal the state's death penalty 37 times. Here he is speaking at the state capital before the vote that finally gave him his win.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERNIE CHAMBERS: Today we are doing something that transcends me, that transcends this legislature, that transcends this state. We are talking about human dignity.

CORNISH: And we're going to hear from a state senator who had initially sided with that view, but today he voted differently, supporting the governor who, again, wanted to keep the death penalty in place. Senator Jerry Johnson, welcome to the program.

JERRY JOHNSON: Thank you.

CORNISH: So help us understand your vote. Why did you initially vote to repeal the death penalty, and why did you change your mind?

JOHNSON: Well, initially the system was not working, and I just felt that we needed to do something fairly drastic, and so I thought, well, maybe we should repeal this and take a look at it in the future after we've put in some new - our new laws. We've made a lot of changes in our criminal justice system in the last couple years, and at that point maybe it was time then to bring in part of the death penalty back into our system. But then right before select file, the governor announced that he had been able to purchase the drugs for lethal injection, and I thought well, maybe this is a start in the correction side of it that we can do things better now. We got a new lieutenant governor, a new governor, a new attorney general, a new director of corrections and just kind of a whole new culture hopefully within our state.

And I thought well, maybe this is the time to hold on to it, give the new governor and his new system a chance to get things rolling and digest this for about a year. All 49 senators, the Lord willing, will come back next year, and we can evaluate it then. And so I thought maybe it was time that we just slow up just a little bit, and that was the reason I decided to change my vote and go along with the governor.

CORNISH: So, your reaction to your fellow lawmakers' decision to effectively repeal the death penalty?

JOHNSON: Well, I knew there was a strong force out there on the other side, I'll put it at this point, since I was on the losing side. There was two of us that did change our vote. There were two that did not vote in the final reading, and they both voted on the governor's side. So it was as close as you can get. It took 30 votes to override the veto. I've heard comments on the floor as soon as the vote was over that there will probably be a petition drive out there to put it on a ballot - probably a petition drive that would come out there this year and put it on the ballott in 2016.

CORNISH: Given what's happened in your state, the support of more conservative and obviously Republican-leaning lawmakers on this vote to repeal, do you see a growing conservative movement against the death penalty?

JOHNSON: I'm not sure how to read it right now. When the body came together this year with a larger number of Republicans with a conservative label - but it has not acted that way this year with some very tough issues, and we've probably seen more of the conservative side being a little bit more on the - voting for more social things which kind of gets them labeled as more of a liberal. And so - and it played into part, I think, in this vote here.

CORNISH: The governor has said that the state does have the drugs needed to carry out the death penalty going forward. But given the trouble getting those drugs, do you still have questions, right? I mean, do you feel like the state really could have sustained this much longer?

JOHNSON: Well, the governor says we have them. I think that's a little bit of a misleading statement. We have purchased them. We have made a deposit at least, paying for them, but we have not actually received them to my knowledge. And they have not been tested by the state, and they have not met the federal approval. And that's been some of the issues in the past, so I hope it's not just a statement that the governor has made in order to try and swing some other votes. It did effect mine, but I was wavering before that as looking for something that maybe we can, you know, turn this around and make this a - make the system work better. But we're just going to have to wait and see. I don't know how soon the drugs will get here...

CORNISH: OK.

JOHNSON: ...And how soon we will be able to prove that they are the right ones.

CORNISH: Nebraska Senator Jerry Johnson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: I appreciate it, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.