ST. GEORGE — A national political network announced a list of 250 state representatives who support repealing the death penalty during a live stream Monday.
The Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty live stream included Utah Justice Coalition founder Darcy Van Orden, who is actively pursuing a state repeal of the death penalty in Utah. The live stream and statement was a direct response to the federal government’s announcement that they will resume executions for the first time in 16 years.
“This is an administration that has clearly signaled its support of this system, and what’s to get it up and running again,” Hannah Cox, the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, told St. George News.
Van Orden said the Utah Justice Coalition began running a bill in the state to repeal the death penatly in 2016. HB 397 prohibits state prosecutors from seeking the death penalty for future aggravated murder charges, but the bill would not affect previous rulings.
In 2016, the bill passed in the Senate and was pushed into the House of Representatives. The bill was passed in the House committee but the coalition ran out of time during the session. The bill was run again in 2018, and Van Orden said it came very close to passing in the House of Representatives.
Since then, the coalition has taken the time to speak with representatives about the death penalty and the bill to gain momentum, and Van Orden said she plans to run the bill again in 2020. If the bill passes the House, it will go back to the Senate for a final vote.
Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty was founded in Montana in 2012 and has become a national network of conservatives and libertarians who work to repeal the death penalty at the state level. Cox said the group is largely focused on education.
“You’ll see a lot of support in the public for the death penalty for people who’ve never been in the justice system or who’ve never really taken the time to look at how it’s operating in practice,” Cox said. “But if you can get in front of people even for five minutes or so and just expose some of the things that are happening, most people turn away from the death penalty fairly quickly.”
The group has found a number of reasons people show their support for the repeal of the death penalty. It’s a large government program that is ineffective, wastes taxpayer dollars and highly problematic, she said.
Cox initially changed her stance on the death penalty due to innocence issues she learned about through her research. It was concerning to her to learn that out of every 10 executions, one person is exonerated, she said. Cox asserted that each person should have every opportunity to be fully exonerated, and the death penalty cuts those opportunities short.
Another concern for those in support of the repeal falls on the cost of placing inmates on death row. In 2012, Utah’s legislature estimated the death penalty, including years of appeals leading up to the inmate’s death, costs $1.6 million more than life without parole.
Furthermore, more people have become aware of racial bias and social injustices within the court system, Cox said. Minorities are disproportionately handed harsher sentences, including the death penalty. Others believe pro-life rights should begin at conception and extend throughout a person’s lifetime to their natural death.
“There’s just so many problems with it,” Cox said. “There’s kind of something for everybody.”
Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Iron County, said he doesn’t necessarily believe the death penalty should be repealed, although he asserted there are some shortcomings.
Shipp said he agrees that each inmate should have the opportunity to fight against an unjust ruling, but he also believes that the death penalty should be awarded if there is unequivocal proof. Likewise, Shipp told St. George News he believes inmates should be able to elect for the death penalty if sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“I’m kind of conflicted, honestly, in some ways,” Shipp said. “It is complicated, but honestly, I do think there are instances where it is justifiable and it ought to be an option that can be considered under certain conditions.”
Premeditated murder and electing for the death penalty should be two such instances, he said.
The first day of the Utah Legislature General Session begins Jan. 27.
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