Nebraska Supreme Court dismisses suit from death-row inmates

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit Friday filed by eight death-row inmates who argued that their sentences were invalidated by the Legislature’s repeal of capital punishment in 2015, before voters overturned the ban.

Justices denied the inmates’ request for a declaration that their sentences were no longer valid, upholding a decision issued by a district court judge. But the state’s highest court left open the possibility that the inmates could raise similar arguments when challenging their convictions individually.

“We conclude that the inmates have equally serviceable remedies and accordingly affirm the district court’s dismissal” of the case, Chief Justice Michael Heavican wrote in the opinion.

The inmates argued that the Legislature’s 2015 vote to override Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto and abolish the death penalty effectively reduced their sentences to life in prison. A petition drive led by death penalty supporters suspended the repeal law before it could go into effect and placed the issue before voters, who reinstated capital punishment in the 2016 general election .

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The lawsuit also contended that the petition drive was invalid because Ricketts helped finance it, which the inmates said violated constitutional separation of powers. It further claimed that Ricketts should have been listed as an official sponsor of the petition because of his contributions and his close ties to activists who spearheaded the petition drive.

The court rejected those arguments.

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska said the ruling doesn’t address its clients’ claims that they may no longer be executed.

“We look forward to resolution of these claims in the individual post-conviction proceedings the court has ruled that each prisoner must undertake,” said Danielle Conrad, the group’s executive director. “While we respect that Nebraskans of goodwill hold different viewpoints on the death penalty, these and other concerns about transparency, accountability and fairness will persist beyond this case.”

Nebraska carried out its first execution in more than two decades in August, using a never-before-tried combination of lethal injection drugs. Days before the execution, Nebraska corrections director Scott Frakes acknowledged in an affidavit that the state probably wouldn’t be able to obtain another batch of drugs in the future.

State officials refused to disclose their supplier, despite doing so in past cases, which prompted still-pending lawsuits from the ACLU of Nebraska and the state’s two largest newspapers. The Nebraska Supreme Court is expected to rule in those public-records lawsuits as well.

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