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38th Time’s the Charm: Senator Chambers Finally Kills Nebraska’s Death Penalty

Senator Ernie Chambers tried 37 times during his 41 years in the Nebraska Legislature to repeal his state’s death penalty. This week, on try #38, he succeeded. Ten men the state planned to kill will now live out their lives in prison.

Senator Chambers says this fight defines his political career:

“No matter how many other things I have achieved while here, had I not gotten the death penalty repealed I would have felt it was a failure,” Sen. Ernie Chambers told reporters after a historic vote that saw 29 colleagues give just enough support to override a Republican governor’s veto of his bill (LB268) that repealed the state’s death penalty [Joanne Young, “Nebraska’s Death Penalty Is Repealed,” Lincoln Journal-Star, 2015.05.28].

Senator Chambers stuck with this single issue against his state’s political climate and persevered:

Senator Ernie Chambers
Senator Ernie Chambers

The outcome elicited a nod and a grin from the typically stoic Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has tried for four decades to repeal the death penalty. As the controversial senator walked through the glass doors leading into the Capitol Rotunda, he was feted with chants of “Ernie! Ernie! Ernie!”

Chambers quoted from the Bible to summarize his thoughts upon the achievement of his highest political goal.

“I fought the good fight, I finished my course, I kept the faith,” he said. “And although I put it in the personal pronoun singular, it’s everybody who voted for that override. Because if any one of them had not, it wouldn’t have happened” [Joe Duggan, Paul Hammel and Martha Stoddard, “Hours of Suspense, Emotion Lead up to a Landmark Vote for Legislators on Repealing Death Penalty,” Omaha World-Herald, 2015.05.28].

Senator Chambers happens to be the highest-ranking elected open atheist in the country. He finally won the death penalty debate on the prevailing evidence that Nebraska’s death penalty is inordinately expensive and arbitrary.

There are many reasons to take heart over the fact that Senator Ernie Chambers finally convinced the Nebraska Legislature to outlaw the state’s deliberate killing of prisoners. On a personal level, I take heart to see that an atheist can fight and lose 37 times, stick to his ideals, and ultimately win in a conservative prairie state. Well done, Senator Chambers.


  1. larry kurtz 2015-05-29 09:54

    Malcolm Little’s Omaha has come a long way from where it was in my childhood when Negroes were forced to the back of city buses and called jigaboos by the German and Irish.

  2. Sam@ 2015-05-29 10:02

    Nice to see this happen. Their is little or no evidence to support the death penalty. About all I can see it has accomplished is it has made a lot of lawyers a lot of money at the expense of the working public.

    Has not deterred crime.

  3. bearcreekbat 2015-05-29 11:53

    Well done Ernie! This gives me hope for the future of our state and country! Thanks Cory for this posting.

  4. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-05-29 19:20

    I’ve been following the story about the NE legislature in general and Sen. Little specifically. This is good news for America, Nebraska, and specifically Little. Congratulations!

  5. Union Co 2015-05-30 09:39

    NE Senator Jeremy Nordquist (formerly from SD) was also instrumental in getting this passed.

  6. Barbara 2015-05-30 14:31

    Gov. Ricketts reportedly is still planning to carry out the death sentences for the 10 prisoners on death row. The bills passage, the override of his veto, statements from the bishops of his church, the precedent in 18 other states of not proceeding with executions after outlawing the death penalty, and FDA warnings that the state cannot legally import one of the drugs needed to carry it out – none of this has deterred him. Sounds like Sen. Chambers has some competition for persistence. I wonder how far and at what cost the governor will take this.

  7. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-05-31 00:55

    Thanks for the info Barbara. What’s wrong with Ricketts that he’s so bloodthirsty? He sounds a little bit psycho. Ick.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-31 07:23

    Nordquist! Why couldn’t we have kept him politicking on this side of the Missouri?

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-31 07:30

    Barbara, can the governor legally carry out those death sentences? The Nebraska Legislature says the bill is retroactive.

  10. Barbara 2015-05-31 08:24

    His AG is arguing (and the governor agrees with him) that that portion of the law is unconstitutional. Sorry to link to Fox but:
    ‘He said that Nebraska’s Board of Pardons has exclusive power to change final sentences imposed by courts. “Thus, the Attorney General intends to seek a court decision, at the appropriate time, to definitively resolve the issue of the State’s authority to carry out the death sentences previously ordered by Nebraska’s courts for the 10 inmates now on death row.” ‘

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-05-31 09:11

    Interesting legal argument. Basically, the AG will need to argue that Section 23 of LB 268 violates whatever constitutional provisions Nebraska has for separation of powers. The Legislature is essentially commuting the sentence of ten prisoners. Hmm… the AG says the Board of Pardons has exclusive authority, but doesn’t their Governor have the authority to commute death sentences?

  12. mike from iowa 2015-05-31 10:45

    Glossop v. Gross
    The High Court is considering this case out of Oklahoma and while there are some that suggest this case may result in the entire lethal injection method of execution being held unconstitutional as cruel and unusual, there are others that see the case as being narrowly based, and dealing only with the issue of devation from Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008) insofar as substituting the drug
    midazolam as its three-drug lethal injection cocktail, a drug not approved by the FDA for use as general anesthesia and never used as the sole anesthetic for painful surgical procedures.
    4. Supreme Court Allowed Two Death Penalty Executions Already This Year
    Of note, Texas got the green light to execute Robert Ladd this year and Georgia also went ahead with the execution of Warren Hill in 2015 after SCOTUS declined to grant writ in that case.
    NOTE: There is in-depth discussion of the lethal injection method of execution which focuses in part upon the botched execution of Clayton Lockett by the State of Oklahoma that was published today in the Atlantic.
    (Hat tip to Sydney Simon for sending Terry Lenamon advance notice of the cover story here.)
    Entitled, “Cruel and Unusual:The botched execution of Clayton Lockett—and how capital punishment became so surreal,” and written by Jeffrey E. Stern, it’s a good read for those following what’s happening up in Washington righ

  13. bearcreekbat 2015-05-31 13:25

    mfi – Wow that is just sickening.

  14. mike from iowa 2015-05-31 14:44

    bcb-you can understand much more of this than I and it makes me sick.

  15. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-05-31 21:00

    Midazolam would be an appropriate killer drug. After all, it was the murder weapon on a Law & Order episode about a decade ago.

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