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Legislative Clock Runs Out on Utah Bid to End Capital Punishment

Randy Gardner stood in the state House gallery, yelled at the top of his lungs, and waved pictures of his dead brother Ronnie Lee’s bullet-riddled, bloody body — photos that were taken after a Utah firing squad killed him in 2010.

It wasn’t enough to put an end to the death penalty in Utah.

Even though this effort to end capital punishment failed, Richard Dieter, the senior program director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told PJM the Utah effort was exceptional because it went as far as it did in a state that has a GOP-controlled legislature and a Republican governor.

“In a way, this was a leading edge,” Dieter said.

Legislation to do away with Utah’s death penalty came tantalizingly close to approval. SB189, which would have eliminated the death penalty as punishment for first-degree felony aggravated murder convictions, had been approved by the full Senate and a House committee.

Sen. Steve Urquhart (R) said more than 30 House members had agreed to vote “yes” to kill the death penalty. Thirty-eight votes were needed. But when the clock struck midnight, and the Legislature ended its 2016 session, his coach turned into a pumpkin.

“Given the pressure of the last night, the votes I needed to swing, I didn’t see them swinging,” Urquhart said.

An emotional defeat for Urquhart’s volunteer force of anti-capital punishment troops. But Dieter urged them not to surrender.

It isn’t just their ability to take a bill to abolish the death penalty to a final vote in a legislature dominated by Republicans that Dieter considered noteworthy.

One year ago, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed legislation making death by firing squad the state’s backup plan if it ran out of the chemicals needed for a lethal injection.

“I just don’t think there was enough time to vet this issue. It was groundbreaking that it went as far as it went,” Dieter said. “I believe that it will come back.”

Dieter noted the Utah anti-capital punishment drive is only one of many in America. He said several state legislatures are debating the wisdom of permanent retirement for their executioners.

“It is a bipartisan issue, which is rare, but there are such issues,” Dieter said. “It is a combination of moral and very pragmatic views.”

He said it involves fiscal responsibility, combined with a feeling that laws should be efficient, and mean what they say, along with a concern for the way human beings should be treated.

Urquhart is a perfect example of the shifting sentiment. The Republican had always backed the death penalty in Utah until he learned how much it cost to kill a killer.

He said Utah spends, on average, an extra $1.6 million for every death row inmate beyond what it would have paid to keep a prisoner in a cell for the rest of his natural life.

Urquhart said another consideration that changed his mind was the realization that the time a convicted killer spends on Death Row is pure agony for the family of the victim, who keep getting hauled back to court for appeal after appeal. It takes about 25 years to exhaust the appeals process and finally execute a convicted murderer.

Former Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office and Utah Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Creighton Horton, who put several men on death row, said his mind had also been changed by the same factors that moved Urquhart to a new position.

Horton used a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed column to urge final approval of Urquhart’s proposal.

One mind that is rock-solid in favor of putting convicted first-degree murderers to death is that of Gov. Herbert.

“I’m pro-death penalty, but with the parameters that it’s done on very rare occasions for the most heinous of crimes,” Herbert told the AP. “And that’s how Utah has utilized it over the last 40 years. We’ve only had seven executions in 40 years. This is not Texas.”

Speaking of Texas, Dieter pointed to the Lone Star State as a place where if the death penalty hasn’t been outlawed, at least the use of public execution is decreasing. Dieter sees that as evidence America’s opinion on capital punishment is changing.

“Texas is a state that leads the country in executions by far, and yet it is not using the death penalty nearly as much as it was,” Dieter said. “If Texas is rethinking or, at least, slowing down, I think we will see changes in other states.”

Still, legislation intended to end the death penalty in several states has not been successful in 2016. That does not dissuade Dieter.

“It is often a multi-year process,” he said.

Randy Gardner, who was arrested and held briefly for his short-lived protest in the Utah House Gallery, has no plans to give up his opposition to Utah’s death penalty.

“They need to see me. They need to hear me,” Gardner told a Salt Lake Tribune reporter in the hall outside the gallery. “It probably ain’t going to change anything, but I feel better.”