Don't Kill Us: Death Row Inmates Sue Nebraska Governor, Claiming He Illegally Funded Push to Execute Them

Demonstrators organized by "Catholics Against the Death Penalty-Southern California" protest against the death penalty and in favor of immigration reform, in Anaheim, California, on February 25, 2017. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

All of Nebraska's death row inmates filed a lawsuit against the state's governor Monday in an attempt to save their lives, the latest skirmish in a national fight over the death penalty.

The 11 men on death row in the Cornhusker State were relieved when state lawmakers eliminated executions there in 2015, overriding a veto from Republican Governor Pete Ricketts. Their sentences were converted to life in prison as a result of the repeal.

Ricketts, the son of billionaire TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, later funded a push for a statewide referendum on restoring the death penalty, and it was successful last year. (Joe Ricketts received national attention this month when he shut down the news websites DNAinfo and Gothamist after employees voted to join a union.)

"The Legislature's actions served to soften our state's approach to dealing with Nebraska's most hardened and heinous criminals," the governor wrote in a fundraising letter for the organization, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which the lawsuit says he and his family provided with $425,000 and staffed with his supporters and allies.

"It's our position that when the legislature overrode his veto, that was the limit of what the governor could do to influence state law," said Amy Miller, legal director of ACLU Nebraska, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners.

When the governor funded and staffed the organization, Miller said, "He went beyond what the executive branch may do within the state constitution separation of powers."

Nevada and Nebraska want to use fentanyl for a never before tested lethal injection method. Mike Simons/Getty Images

The lawsuit, which also names as defendants other politicians and the state Department of Corrections, argues that the 2015 repeal converted the inmates' sentences to life in prison and the 2016 referendum does not reinstate their death penalties.

The governor did not respond to a request for comment sent to his spokesmen.

The legal fight over executions in Nebraska reflects a national debate over whether to carry out the most serious punishment. Thirty-one states have the death penalty and 19 states and the District of Columbia have abolished it, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

Arkansas executed four men over eight days in April because the drugs the state planned to use were about to expire, a move that drew criticism and lawsuits.

In Iowa, where the last execution carried out was when the federal government hung a murderer in 1963, lawmakers in January expect to debate a bill that would reinstate the death penalty for certain offenses, according to the Des Moines Register.

In Oklahoma, a commission that gathered to review the death penalty recommended in April that the state extended its moratorium on the punishment.

Death row cases regularly reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices on the nation's highest court ruled last month that an Alabama prisoner could be executed even though he couldn't remember his crime, and they decided Monday not to hear another Alabama death penalty case in which attorneys said black jurors were wrongly excluded from a jury, according to the Associated Press.

Long seen as favoring the death penalty, Republican lawmakers have started repeal efforts in some GOP-controlled states, as concerns grow over botched executions and high costs, according to a new report from Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.