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Utah Republican Wants to Press the Gas Pedal on Death Penalty

Photo: Grabien Screenshot

Ralph Leroy Menzies’ fate is in the hands of Rep. Paul Ray (R) and other members of the Utah Legislature. The same goes for Von Lester Taylor, Douglas Stewart Carter, and six other convicted killers waiting to be put to death.

The most recent effort to erase the possibility of execution from Utah’s law books failed. Proponents expect to try again in the next legislative session.

Rep. Ray not only voted against that move to end capital punishment, and will cast a vote against any future efforts, he wants to speed up the execution process.

Ray has always been a friend to the executioner. As PJM reported in March, he sponsored a bill in 2015 that opened the way for executions by firing squad if the state couldn’t find the drugs needed for lethal injections.

“It sounds like the Wild West, but it’s probably the most humane way to kill somebody,” Ray told the Associated Press. “It sounds draconian. It sounds really bad, but the minute the bullet hits your heart, you’re dead. There’s no suffering.”

He has also sponsored legislation that would permit the use of the death penalty to do away with child-sex traffickers.

“It’s a huge problem right now, and the criminals want to take a risk, ‘Hey, I’ll take a few years in jail for this,'” Ray said when he introduced the legislation in May 2016. “Understand, these are the baddest of the bad. These people are monsters. I think it sends a message: Don’t do this in Utah. Don’t take our kids. Don’t operate here.”

Now Ray tells Salt Lake City’s Fox 13-TV he will propose legislation that would cut down on the number of appeals that death row inmates can use to stall their executions.

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City is not in his corner.

“Death sentences serve no purpose in our current criminal justice system, except to enact revenge. As such, the penalty violates the teaching of the Catholic Catechism,” said Jean Hill, director of the Catholic Diocese.

“Further, state governments have proven to be ineffective in their use of the penalty,” she added, “resulting in several people being exonerated after serving decades on death row.”

The preferred means of execution in Utah is lethal injection.

“The reason they went to lethal injection was because they did not like the image that was portrayed by using a firing squad,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Utah Public Radio. “They thought it was bad for the state.”

The second option is to have the prisoner face a firing squad and be shot to death, thanks to Rep. Ray’s legislation in 2015.

Dunham said there are only two other states that have an alternative to lethal injection. Convicted killers get the gas chamber in Oklahoma and the electric chair in Tennessee.

Three of the nine prisoners slated to die in Utah have chosen the firing squad. The others are going with lethal injection. But they might have to be shot to death.

Most drug manufacturers are refusing to sell any more of the execution chemicals, and Utah has run out of the chemicals needed to do a lethal injection.

Dunham said all of the other states, besides Utah, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, have decided to let their convicted killers live on Death Row while they wait for the right drugs or legislative action that does away with capital punishment.

Rep. Ray obviously doesn’t have a problem with putting a bullet in the heart of a person who’s taken a life.

And, he said those who argue capital punishment is too expensive, or it’s wrong to let prisoners languish on Death Row, should back his bill in the 2017 legislative session.

“A lot of the support on that last year was the fact that the death penalty was too hard to do and took too long,” Ray told Fox 13.

However, there is the question of morality and the problem of expense is leading many legislators, even Republicans, to change their minds about the wisdom of capital punishment.

Providing the room, board, and medical care that goes along with a life sentence is a costly proposition.

But killing a convict doesn’t come cheap.

Going through the legal process and court appeals that are needed before the needle is inserted, the bullet fired, the gas pellet dropped, or the electric chair switch flipped to kill a prisoner is even more expensive.

The Washington Post reported the latter factor, the legal expenses that must be incurred, have led Republicans in 10 states to the decision that maybe life sentences are the best option.

Utah Sen. Stephen Urquhart is one of those Republican legislators who has decided there has to be a better way than capital punishment. He used to support the death penalty but a change of heart on the issue of executing prisoners came very close to ending the practice in Utah.

Urquhart’s proposal to end capital punishment was approved by the Utah Senate and a House committee but failed to win final legislative approval in the House.

Even though that 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.

Still, Rep. Ray holds out hope that speeding up the executions of the nine on Utah’s Death Row and all those that follow will help his legislation.

“I think if we can come out with something that answers that,” Ray said, “there’s not enough support to get rid of the death penalty.”