In deep-red Utah, lawmakers may repeal the death penalty
MICHELLE L. PRICE
Mar. 09, 2016
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah's Republican-dominated Legislature will cast a final vote this week on a proposal to abolish the death penalty in the conservative state, a year after lawmakers voted to reinstate the use of firing squads in executions when lethal drugs are unavailable.
The proposal passed a House committee by one vote Tuesday night, after a lawmaker who initially voted against the measure realized he meant to support it and changed his vote.
It now faces a vote before the full House sometime before lawmakers adjourn at midnight Thursday. If it passes, the measure will go to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who supports capital punishment but has not said whether he will veto it.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment, and proposals to repeal the death penalty have been introduced in at least eight others in the past year.
Meanwhile, a nationwide shortage of lethal-injection drugs in recent years has led several states to pass or consider laws to bring back different execution methods, such as electrocution. Utah lawmakers last year voted to reinstate firing squads as a backup method to ensure the state had a way to kill death row inmates if it couldn't get lethal-injection drugs.
On the heels of that decision, the move to abolish executions was initially considered a longshot.
Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart has led the push and voted for the firing squad proposal last year, saying that it would be a quick and effective means of execution if the state has a death penalty.
Urquhart says he initially was a supporter of capital punishment, but he's shifted his position in recent years and now believes that delays and costs associated with the death penalty make it an ineffective punishment.
He initially said it would be an uphill climb to persuade his colleagues to vote for abolishment, telling The Associated Press last month that "If you're betting, bet against it." But he said he sensed some movement among his colleagues and that the Legislature's strong libertarian streak made him optimistic.
Urquhart told lawmakers Tuesday night that governments are not perfect, "yet we're OK being in the business of life and death?"
Steven Shapiro, a Utah criminal defense attorney whose parents were killed in a Phoenix suburb in 2012, said one of the two people charged in the crime is in a death penalty case. He said that sets up his family for decades of pain revisited as the case drags on.
"I want them to sit there in that cell, and I want them to know that the only thing that will change their circumstance in that cell is when they're no longer able to draw breath," Shapiro said.
Critics of Urquhart's bill told lawmakers the death penalty is a just punishment for some heinous crimes, and it should remain on the table to give prosecutors leverage in negotiating plea bargains.
Urquhart's proposal would allow executions to go forward for the nine people on Utah's death row now, but remove it as an option for any new convictions. At least two of those on Utah's death row are set to die by firing squad when they exhaust their appeals. That means even if Utah abolishes the death penalty this year, at some point in the years ahead the state could be ordered to assemble a five-member team of marksmen to execute an inmate.
Last year, Nebraska's Republican-controlled Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty over a veto from that state's GOP governor.
It became the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the punishment since North Dakota dropped the practice in 1973. Death penalty supporters quickly launched a petition drive, leaving Nebraska voters to decide the issue this November.
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