A year ago, Utah lawmakers were expanding the ways the state could execute inmates condemned to death. This week, the state took a major step toward possibly abolishing the death penalty entirely.
The Utah state Senate narrowly voted on Wednesday to approve a bill that scraps the death penalty, with 15 state senators — the minimum number needed for passage — voting to send it to the state’s House of Representatives.
A dozen senators voted against this bill, while two were absent or did not vote. It is still not clear what will happen to the bill when it moves to the state House or, if it passes that chamber, makes it to Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R), who supports capital punishment and signed a bill last year expanding use of the firing squad.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for Herbert reiterated his stance on capital punishment while expressing some reservations.
“Governor Herbert continues to be a supporter of the death penalty but has concerns over the excessive length of time it often takes from the date of conviction to the actual punishment,” the spokesman, Jon Cox, said in a statement.
The bill in Utah would prohibit death sentences for aggravated murders committed on or after May 10, while it would also ban death sentences for crimes committed before that date if the death penalty has not been sought yet.
This legislation went to the House on Wednesday and was introduced there the same day. In Utah, bills must be read three separate times in each of the two chambers. It would take at least 38 votes in the House to approve the bill and send it to Herbert.
If the bill does wind up passing the House and Herbert opts for a veto, it would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers to override that. Utah’s legislative session is scheduled to end next week.
Utah state Sen. Steve Urquhart (R), who sponsored the bill, told The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips last month that he was “making tremendous headway talking with House members” about the repeal.
Urquhart said his arguments talked about how the death penalty is costly and described the process as riddled with delays. (Read the whole interview here for more on how he came to sponsor the bill. )
“I’m thinking that it’s wrong for government to be in business in killing its own citizens,” he said last month. “That cheapens life.”
The issue of how long inmates spend on death row was also cited by Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer in a high-profile dissent discussing the death penalty last year.
Breyer, who was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, questioned whether the death penalty was constitutional and said that inmates condemned to death faced “unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose.”
Death-row inmates nationwide have spent an average of 14 years under those sentences, according to the most recent federal figures. (In some cases, as we saw in Texas last year and Georgia last month, inmates were executed at least 30 years after they were sentenced to death.)
Meanwhile, the number of executions nationwide — along with death sentences — has fallen considerably in recent years. Last year, states executed 28 inmates, the smallest number in more than two decades, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
In Utah, the possibility of a bill banning the death penalty comes a little less than a year after state lawmakers, facing a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, decided to make firing squads the state’s backup option so that they could still carry out executions.
As this drug shortage has continued, the country has seen a larger shift away from using the death penalty. Fewer inmates are sentenced to death and fewer executions are carried out, a big change from just two decades ago. A majority of the American public supports the death penalty, but that number is significantly down from what it was two decades earlier amid an era of heightened anxiety over crime.
The last decade has also seen movement in some states to get away from capital punishment entirely. A third of the states with formal bans against the death penalty have gotten rid of the practice since 2007.
Last year, in Nebraska — which, like Utah, is reliably conservative — lawmakers voted to ditch the death penalty and join that list, passing a bill that replaced it with life imprisonment.
Those same lawmakers then overrode a veto from the governor, briefly making Nebraska the 19th state in the country to abolish capital punishment. That law was quickly put on hold after opponents submitted enough signatures to stop the repeal until voters weigh in this November.
Death-penalty opponents in Nebraska pointed out that the state had not executed an inmate since 1997, with State Sen. Colby Coash, the Republican co-sponsor of the bill there, saying he felt capital punishment was “inefficient” and “costly.”
In Utah, executions have also been a rare occurrence. Since 2000, the state has executed one inmate: Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was put to death by firing squad in 2010.
Utah technically never got rid of the firing squad, though in 2004 the state largely discarded the practice. The law that year let inmates sentenced previously choose between lethal injection or a firing squad. Last year, Utah made firing squads the backup method of execution.