An unexpectedly potent push to abolish Utah’s death penalty came up short this week, and the practice remained on the books as the state’s legislative session wrapped up.
A bill that would have scrapped capital punishment in cherry-red Utah made it through the Utah state Senate earlier this month and, earlier this week, also passed a key committee in the state’s House of Representatives. It was a surprisingly strong showing for such a proposal given that just last year, Utah lawmakers took an unusual step and expanded the state’s death penalty.
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.
The death penalty debate in Utah came as lawmakers in Florida revamped that state’s death penalty to allow them to resume executions after a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, while an Alabama judge questioned whether that state’s death penalty was constitutional.
Utah’s move to reconsider the death penalty was a surprise because, among other reasons, lawmakers there decided to make firing squads the state’s backup option so that they could still carry out executions in the face of a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs. In 2004, Utah lawmakers largely scrapped the firing squad, leaving it as an option only for inmates sentenced before that year; but last year, they reversed that and said firing squads should be used if lethal injection is unavailable.
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.
Last year, lawmakers in Nebraska voted to ditch the death penalty, passing a bill that replaced it with life imprisonment. They overrode a veto from the governor, briefly making Nebraska the 19th state in the country to abolish capital punishment; the law wound up on hold after opponents submitted enough signatures to stop the repeal until voters weigh in this November.
Nebraska State Sen. Colby Coash, the Republican co-sponsor of the bill there, said he felt capital punishment was “inefficient” and “costly.”
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.