But with the legislative session ending Thursday night, legislators in the state House had a limited window to vote on the proposal. Ultimately, the bill was kicked back to the state Senate without a vote after the state senator who sponsored it determined it didn’t have the votes yet and that he needed more time to convince people who were on the fence.
“I can’t say that the bill is totally a victim of the clock, but you know, if we had another week or so, it would be interesting to see what would have happened,” Utah state Sen. Steve Urquhart (R) told the Associated Press.
Urquhart and Rep. Eric K. Hutchings (R), the bill’s floor sponsor in the House, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
It was unclear what would have happened if the state House approved the bill, as Gov. Gary. R. Herbert (R) remains a supporter of the death penalty. However, earlier this month a spokesman for Herbert reiterated that support and added that the governor “has concerns over the excessive length of time it often takes from the date of conviction to the actual punishment.”
The argument about the length of time inmates spend on death row is something Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer cited when he questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty in a dissent last year. Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said death-row inmates face “unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose.”
These delays do not seem likely to abate any time soon, as the country has nearly 3,000 inmates on death row and carries out a dwindling number of executions each year. In 2015, states executed 28 inmates, the smallest total in more than two decades. Death-row inmates nationwide have spent an average of 14 years under their sentences, according to the most recent federal figures.
A majority of the American public supports the death penalty, but that number is significantly down from what it was two decades earlier during an era of heightened anxiety over crime.
The support from lawmakers in Utah showed that it is “unmistakable that an increasing number of conservative Republicans in Utah, like those in Nebraska, are realizing that the death penalty is irrevocably broken,” Marc Hyden, national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said in a statement. He added: “Conservatives are increasingly taking the lead to end the death penalty precisely because of our conservative principles.”
There have been discussions about eliminating the death penalty in other states around the country, following some movement over the last several years. A third of the states with formal bans against the death penalty have abolished it since 2007.
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. Garner’s brother was detained by police after going to the gallery in the House of Representatives to criticize lawmakers’ inaction Thursday, according to the Deseret News.