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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill abolishing the death penalty that would make it the first conservative state to do so since 1973 if the measure becomes law.
The vote margin in the unicameral Legislature was more than enough to override a promised veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts, a supporter of capital punishment. Ricketts, a Republican, said the vote represented a "dark day" for public safety.
"Nebraska has a chance to step into history — the right side of history — to take a step that will be beneficial toward the advancement of a civilized society," said Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, an independent who has fought for four decades to end the death penalty.
The Nebraska vote marks a shift in the national debate because it was bolstered by conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons, cast it as a waste of taxpayer money and question whether government can be trusted to manage it. Law-and-order conservatives in the United States have traditionally stood among the strongest supporters of the ultimate punishment.
Nebraska hasn't executed a prisoner since 1997, when the electric chair was used. The state has never imposed the punishment under the lethal injection process now required by state law. Some lawmakers have argued that constant legal challenges will prevent the state from executing anyone in the future.
"It's certainly a matter of conscience, at least in part, but it's also a matter of trying to be philosophically consistent," said Sen. Laure Ebke, a Republican from Crete. "If government can't be trusted to manage our health care ... then why should it be trusted to carry out the irrevocable sentence of death?"
Senators voted 35-12 to advance the repeal bill through the last of three required votes.
Ricketts has promised to veto the bill, requiring an override vote likely to take place next week. At least 30 votes are needed to pass the bill over his objections.
The governor announced last week that the state recently spent $54,400 to buy new lethal injection drugs from a company in West Bengal, India. Nebraska lost its ability to carry out the punishment in December 2013, when its supply of one key drug expired.
Ricketts argued that, unlike other death-penalty states, Nebraska has imposed the punishment judiciously. Nebraska currently has 11 men on death row.
"This is a case where the Legislature is completely out of touch with the overwhelming majority of Nebraskans that I talk to," Ricketts said.
Ricketts, who is serving his first year in office, argued that the state's inability to carry out executions was a "management problem" that he is committed to fixing.
Maryland was the last state to end capital punishment, in 2013. Three other moderate-to-liberal states have done so in recent years: New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012. But the last conservative state to do so was North Dakota in 1973. Thirty-two states and the federal government allow capital punishment.
Nebraska lawmakers passed a death-penalty repeal bill once before, in 1979, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Charles Thone and lawmakers didn't attempt an override.
Death penalty supporters tried to prevent the vote with a legislative filibuster, arguing that capital punishment is rarely used in the state but should remain on the books for the most heinous crimes.
Republican Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha pointed to one of the Boston Marathon bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was condemned to die last week for his role in the 2013 attack.
"In America we recognize with our justice system that there are appropriate punishments and sentences and consequences for appropriate crimes," McCoy said.
Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, a death penalty supporter, said some murders "clearly warrant" the use capital punishment.
"Without the ability to utilize the death penalty, the state has weakened its ability to properly administer appropriate justice," he said.
The vote was a milestone for Miriam Thimm Kelle, who started lobbying Nebraska lawmakers to abolish the death penalty a decade ago. Her brother, James Thimm, was tortured and killed on a Nebraska farm in 1985 by a man who is still awaiting execution because of repeated legal challenges.
Kelle said she hopes repealing the death penalty will put the issue to rest and encourage the public to forget about the man who murdered her brother.
"It's been going on for 30 years, and nothing has changed," she said. "Just put James to rest. Thirty years is enough."
Associated Press writer Anna Gronewold contributed in Lincoln.