SALT LAKE CITY – Legislation that would repeal the death penalty in Utah received preliminary approval in a vote before the Utah Senate Tuesday.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, told the Senate before the vote that the death penalty is a costly path for the state. Utah currently has nine inmates on death row and the cost to the state is up to $1.6 million per inmate per year. Some death row inmates have been kept in prison for decades while pursuing appeals.
Families of the victims, on the other hand, have to endure a drawn out appeals process that does little to provide closure, Urquhart said.
“The families are tortured,” he said. “They are further victimized. There’s no closure, no time to heal.”
Urquhart said members of the Senate likely know the names of the inmates on death row, yet not the names of their victims. Inmates who spend decades in prison become famous, he said, while the victim’s family continues to suffer.
Under SB 189, effective May 10, 2016, capital punishment would be eliminated for the crime of first-degree felony aggravated murder. Life in prison without the possibility of parole or 25 years to life would remain as punishments for aggravated murder.
Once a sentence is handed down under the new law, Urquhart argued, a convict is locked away and the victim’s families would gain the closure they need.
Urquhart also repeated previous statements that he doesn’t believe the government does anything perfectly.
“Yet we’re content to arrogate to ourselves the godlike power of life and death,” he said.
Among one of the central arguments against the death penalty is that of wrong conviction – the possibility that an innocent person could be sent to death row. Urquhart said that was also a valid reason to repeal the state’s death penalty
No discussions or debate followed Urquhart’s comments in the Senate, although he said there had been much debate over the matter already.
As a vote was called, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, told the floor he wanted to explain his vote.
Thatcher, who sat on the judiciary committee that forwarded Urquhart’s bill, said he was conflicted by it. He believes there should be an ultimate punishment for those who commit egregious and heinous crimes, and yet, the families of the victims must be considered.
“I wish that I could find fault with the presentation and the position of the good senator from St. George,” Thatcher said. “But the reality is – he’s right. Ultimately we have to put the victims first, and delayed justice – decades delayed justice – is not justice.”
SB 189 is in the best interest of providing the families with closure, Thatcher said, in voting for the bill.
While the bill would repeal the application of capital punishment in future cases if it passes, the nine inmates currently on death row would still have their sentences carried out.
Senators from Southern Utah who voted for SB 189: Sens. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, and Urquhart.
Senates from Southern Utah who voted against SB 189: Sens. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, and Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.
- Text of the proposed amendments: 2016’s Senate Bill 189 – Death Penalty Amendments – Introduced 20160218
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