As recently as a year ago, Utah state Sen. Steve Urquhart (R) was supportive of the death penalty.
He even voted along with most of his Republican colleagues last year to reauthorize the firing squad, and beyond that he didn’t really think about it much.
But over a recent dinner conversation with a fellow conservative friend, Urquhart changed his mind. The death penalty is inefficient, costly and wrong, he now says. This legislative session, Urquhart is leading the charge to repeal Utah’s death penalty, which is only used for aggravated murder.
“It’s wrong for government to be in business in killing its own citizens,” Urquhart told The Fix. “That cheapens life.”
His bill passed out of a Senate committee 5 to 2 this week, but he faces an uphill battle to get it approved in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, and it’s unclear whether Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, will sign it.
Still, the fact that Republican leaders such as Urquhart are even considering abolishing the death penalty suggests there’s room in the United States for the right to meet the left on one of the country’s most contentious of issues.
And it’s not just Utah. In May, Nebraska became the 19th state and the first Republican-controlled state in more than 40 years to repeal the death penalty (the state’s unicameral legislature is technically nonpartisan, but is GOP-controlled for all intents and purposes). The fight there is not over. Death penalty supporters in Nebraska, led by Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), succeeded in getting enough signatures to suspend the repeal law. The state’s voters will ultimately decide what to do in November.
Despite that, Marc Hyden with Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a group launched in 2013 to advocate for abolishing capital punishment, thinks what’s happening in Utah and Nebraska is a sign that the United States is on the precipice of a movement to do away with the death penalty.
Lawmakers in Kentucky, Kansas, Montana and New Hampshire are reevaluating whether to keep the death penalty on the books this year, he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a few states dump the death penalty” in the next few years, Hyden said.
To get a better sense of how the death penalty debate is playing out one Republican state legislature, The Fix spoke more in-depth with Urquhart:
THE FIX: How long have you been working on this repeal?
URQUHART: About five months.
THE FIX: Why are you focusing on this now?
URQUHART: I had a dinner conversation with a friend about capital punishment. We picked up the conversation a few times and in subsequent days and weeks, and it really made me think. And he won the argument.
THE FIX: Your bill to repeal it has been described, even by you, as a long shot.
URQUHART: I think that we’re going to pass it; I really do.
I believe I have the votes to pass it out of the Senate, and I'm making tremendous headway talking with House members, too. What I’m saying to people is, I start out by saying, ‘You’re in favor the the death penalty, aren’t you?’ And they say yes.
So then I tell them that I understand that but I’d like to talk about the difference between the death penalty in reality and the death penalty in theory. I ask them how many people on death row can you name, and everyone can name a few people, and then I ask them how many of the victims can they name, and they can’t name the victims. I said that’s indicative of what happens. It takes years and sometimes decades between the sentence and carrying out the sentence. Those folks become famous, and the families are victimized by lots of appeals, and they just have scars that can never heal. There’s just not finality on it.
And we do it at a great cost, $1.6 million for every prisoner we execute.
And then, for the clincher, I ask my conservative friends what they think government does extremely well. And then I ask them what they think government does perfectly. And they usually say, ‘It doesn't do anything perfectly.’ And then I ask, ‘Yet we’re going to give ourselves the godlike power over life and death?’ And by that point, they say they’re going to think about and they’d like to talk more, and then they’re coming back a day or two later telling me they’re going to vote for a repeal.
THE FIX: How do you square your vote to reauthorize the firing squad in Utah with your views on the death penalty today?
URQUHART: If that bill came up today, I’d vote the same way. Because as long as we have capital punishment, we need to do it in the most effective way, and the firing squad is effective.
THE FIX: Beyond the practical arguments against the death penalty, is there any religious or moral compass guiding your change of heart?
URQUHART: Originally no, but increasingly yes. I’m thinking that it’s wrong for government to be in business in killing its own citizens. That cheapens life.