Nebraska governor vetoes death penalty transparency bill

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed a bill Monday that would have prohibited prison officials from blocking the view of execution witnesses before the condemned inmate is declared dead, signaling that they’re willing to repeat the much-criticized step in a future execution.

The bill was introduced after prison officials closed the witness viewing curtain for 14 minutes during the August 2018 execution of Carey Dean Moore, which prevented members of the media from seeing the full process after he stopped moving.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes later told a grand jury that prison officials did so “out of respect” for the then-unconscious inmate and to protect the identities of execution team members while they confirmed that Moore was dead. State law requires that the execution team members’ identities be kept confidential to protect them from retribution or harassment.

Supporters of the bill said the move prevented the public from knowing whether something went wrong with the execution, and they argued that execution team members could wear masks to hide their identities. Ricketts contends that forcing prison staff members to wear masks could block their eyesight and potentially still allow them to be identified.

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“Carrying out Nebraska’s death penalty is a sobering responsibility that is assigned to state staff members,” Ricketts said in the veto letter. “To have members of an execution team wearing a mask or disguise would make a mockery of the execution and show a complete lack of respect for the inmate, the inmate’s family and for family of the victims.”

Nebraska lawmakers ended their session on Friday, leaving them no chance to override the Republican governor’s veto. Supporters will now have to wait until next year’s session begins in January to re-introduce the bill to a Legislature with a handful of new senators.

Nebraska currently has 12 inmates on death row, but no executions are scheduled and any attempt to set a date is certain to face legal challenges. Prison officials are also likely to face difficulty obtaining the drugs they need to carry out capital punishment anytime soon.

The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, of Lincoln, said the veto betrays the public’s right to transparency and accountability in state government. Pansing Brooks said the public has no way to know whether the 2018 execution was botched because the media’s view was obscured.

“The process of taking a life is not the government’s little secret to protect themselves and hide from the public,” she said.

Danielle Conrad, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, said the veto “will allow state officials to operate in the shadows, carrying out the death penalty without ensuring that witnesses can observe this grave and irrevocable act.”

State officials were recently forced to disclose the identity of their execution drug supplier after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that their refusal to release that information to newspapers and the ACLU of Nebraska violated the state’s open records laws.

Similar legal battles have played out in Arkansas, which last year expanded the secrecy law that shields the identity of its drug supplier.

The bill was one of seven measures Ricketts vetoed on Monday. The other bills would have allowed more inmates to qualify for parole in an effort to alleviate overcrowding, required high schools students to fill out federal financial aid applications, and required that suspended students be given a chance to complete their homework and classwork while making it more difficult reassign those caught with drugs or alcohol.

Ricketts said the prisons bill could allow some inmates to qualify for parole as soon as they enter prison and cast it as a potential public safety risk. He argued that the other two bills would create additional bureaucratic burdens on schools and parents.

Ricketts also vetoed a bill that would have increased occupational licensing requirements on people who preform manicures and pedicures on natural nails. He said he did so because it would put a bigger burden on people wanting to go into that field.

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