St. George – A bill to repeal the death penalty in Utah has taken its first step by clearing a judiciary committee and moving to the full Senate.
Sponsored by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, SB 189 would remove the punishment for first-degree felony aggravated murder within the state beginning May 10, 2016. Only crimes in which the death penalty has been handed down as a judgment prior to that date would move forward to execution. Capital cases currently being prosecuted would not be affected.
There are currently nine inmates on death row in Utah.
Text of the proposed amendments: 2016’s Senate Bill 189 – Death Penalty Amendments – Introduced 20160218
The bill passed the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee in a 5-2 vote Tuesday with a favorable recommendation.
According to the Associated Press, Urquhart said his bill may be a long shot in conservative Utah, yet he hopes arguments about the cost related to the death penalty, among other concerns, helps garner support for repealing it.
“The reality is we don’t have a death penalty, we’re just spending an awful amount of money so that these people can become famous and thumb their noses at the families of the victims,” Urquhart said after introducing the legislation earlier this month, according to Fox 13 News.
According to fiscal notes related to the bill, it costs the state up to $1.6 million annually for each individual inmate on death row. With nine inmates facing capital punishment, the overall cost to the state goes up to around $14.4 million a year.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah supports the measure.
“Life in prison is a far better alternative to the death penalty,” the ACLU of Utah stated on its website. “It is a severe sentence that both keeps us safe and protects against wrongful executions. It is a swift sentence which is often preferred by victims’ families over the years of mandatory appeals associated with death sentences.”
Objections to the death penalty have also included concerns over botched executions and wrongful convictions.
“Government shouldn’t be in the business of killing,” Urquhart said, according to the Associated Press. “It’s not our place. It’s wrong for us to assume that because we aren’t infallible.”
Republican Sen. Mark Madsen supports the legislation for the same reason. He was among the committee members who voted to push the bill forward.
“If I knew they were guilty, I would have no moral compunction whatsoever pulling the trigger, pulling the switch, whatever it is, but I don’t have that level of confidence in government,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “It’s an irreversible error.”
Two Republicans voting against the measure said they think Utah needs to keep the option out of respect of the family members of victims and as an added measure of justice against horrific crimes.
Other supporters of the death penalty include Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, who sponsored legislation last year that made the firing squad a viable alternative to lethal injection if the drugs needed are not available.
“Sometimes capital punishment is more than a deterrent, it’s justice,” Ray told Fox 13 News. “And sometimes for a family to have closure, that’s the type of justice we need.”
This year Ray is sponsoring legislation that would add human trafficking to the list offenses punishable by death should the victim involved die.
Whether or not Urquhart’s bill survives the Senate floor remains to be seen.
Last October, during his monthly news conference on KUED, Gov. Gary Herbert said he supported the death penalty. He also said he believes the majority of Utahns support the death penalty as well. However, the governor said his own support of capital punishment has certain parameters.
“It should be extremely rare and be done for the most heinous of crimes,” Herbert said.
“Secondly, the process should be in fact, streamlined,” the governor said. “It is not right to have someone on death row for 20, 25, 30 years. Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Three of the nine death-row inmates in Utah have been there for 30 years. Utah is currently one of 31 states where the death penalty remains on the books.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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