LINCOLN, Neb. — When Nebraska lawmakers defied Governor Pete Ricketts in 2015 by repealing the death penalty over his strong objections, the governor wouldn’t let the matter go.
Ricketts, a Republican who is Roman Catholic, tapped his family fortune to help bankroll a referendum to reinstate capital punishment, a measure the state’s Catholic leadership vehemently opposed.
After a contentious and emotional battle across this deep-red state, voters restored the death penalty the next year. Later this month, Nebraska is scheduled to execute Carey Dean Moore, who was convicted of murder, in what would be the state’s first execution in 21 years.
The prospect has renewed a tense debate in a state that has wrestled with the moral and financial implications of the death penalty for years, even before the 2015 attempt to abolish it. Protesters have been holding daily vigils outside the governor’s mansion to oppose Moore’s execution.
Complicating matters, Pope Francis this week declared that executions are unacceptable in all cases, a shift from earlier church doctrine that had accepted the death penalty if it was “the only practicable way” to defend lives.
Coming only days before the scheduled Aug. 14 execution here, the pope’s stance seemed to create an awkward position for Ricketts, who is favored to win a bid for reelection this fall.
Ricketts, who in the past has said that he viewed his position on the death penalty as compatible with Catholicism, on Thursday issued a statement about the pope’s declaration.
“While I respect the pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska,” Ricketts’ statement said. “It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety. The state continues to carry out the sentences ordered by the court.”
But opponents seized on the pope’s comments. Nebraska’s Catholic bishops urged people to contact state officials to stop the scheduled execution of Moore and cited the pope’s teaching. “Simply put, the death penalty is no longer needed or morally justified in Nebraska,” the bishops wrote.
Ricketts declined to be interviewed for this story.
Jane Kleeb, who leads the Nebraska Democratic Party, wrote on Twitter that Ricketts “is going against the teachings of the church” on the matter of executions.
“When you have a priest on Sunday talking about how we don’t believe in the death penalty, I think that will matter to people,” she said in an interview. “Nebraskans are churchgoers and believe in the church and strong family units, and they believe in people paying for their crimes, but not necessarily with their lives.”
In many respects, Moore, 60, has become an afterthought in the buildup to his own execution. He has been on the state’s death row longer than any of the other 11 other men and is among the longest-serving prisoners on any death row in the nation’s history.
The execution planned here has also become part of a national dispute over the use of drugs in death chambers.
Nebraska, which was still using an electric chair the last time it executed someone in 1997, has said Moore will be the state’s first execution by lethal injection, using a combination of four drugs, including fentanyl.
The execution would be the nation’s first to use fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that has been at the center of the nation’s overdose crisis.
Though the state has had capital punishment on the books for most of the past century, it very rarely condemns people to death and even more rarely kills them. In the United States, executions have been on the decline for years.
In 1999, there were 98 executions across the nation, compared with 23 in 2017, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. So far this year, there have been 14.