LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska on Wednesday became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, with lawmakers defying their Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, a staunch supporter of capital punishment who had lobbied vigorously against banning it.
After more than two hours of emotional speeches at the Capitol here, the Legislature, by a 30-to-19 vote that cut across party lines, overrode the governor’s veto of a bill repealing the state’s death penalty law. After the repeal measure passed, by just enough votes to overcome the veto, dozens of spectators in the balcony burst into celebration.
The vote capped a monthslong battle that pitted most lawmakers in the unicameral Legislature against the governor, many law enforcement officials and some family members of murder victims whose killers are on death row. The Legislature approved the repeal bill three times this year, each time by a veto-proof majority, before sending it to Mr. Ricketts’s desk. Adding to the drama, two senators who had previously voted for repeal switched to support the governor at the last minute.
Opponents of the death penalty here were able to build a coalition that spanned the ideological spectrum by winning the support of Republican legislators who said they believed capital punishment was inefficient, expensive and out of place with their party’s values, as well as that of lawmakers who cited religious or moral reasons for supporting the repeal. Nebraska joins 18 other states and Washington, D.C., in banning the death penalty.
Though it is not clear that other Republican-dominated states will follow Nebraska’s example, Wednesday’s vote came at a time when liberals and conservatives have been finding common ground on a range of criminal justice issues in Washington and around the country.
In other states, Democrats and Republicans driven by different motivations have formed alliances to limit the revenue that towns can collect from traffic fines; to crack down on civil asset forfeiture, a practice that disproportionately affects the poor; and to ease mandatory prison sentences.
On the presidential trail, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have all called for easing mandatory minimum sentences, while other Republican candidates have embraced proposals to revamp bail and expand drug treatment that have also been championed by Democrats. Though it formally considers itself nonpartisan, the Nebraska Legislature is dominated by Republicans.
Mr. Ricketts, who fought against the repeal bill by appearing repeatedly in television interviews and urging Nebraskans to pressure their senators to oppose it, immediately denounced the vote.
“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” he said in a statement. “While the Legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue.”
In a debate that was by turns somber, fiery and soul-searching, with sprinklings of quotes from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens and the Book of Genesis, senators stood to make last-minute pitches to try to persuade the undecided. Some said that capital punishment should be retained as a tool to punish the most heinous crimes. Others said that the death penalty, which has not been used in Nebraska since 1997, was irretrievably broken.
“Today we are doing something that transcends me, that transcends this Legislature, that transcends this state,” said Senator Ernie Chambers, an independent from Omaha who sponsored the bill and has fought against the death penalty for decades. “We are talking about human dignity.”
A few senators argued that Nebraskans were still broadly in favor of capital punishment, even if many Republicans in the Legislature had turned away from it. Others said that they were deeply conflicted about their vote to retain the death penalty. “Today I will sustain the governor’s veto because I campaigned on it,” said Senator Tyson Larson, two hours into the debate. “This might be the last time I give the state the right to take a life, because I don’t think that they necessarily should.”
Read more: NY Times