Utah bill could allow executions of human traffickers

AP News
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Posted: Feb 02, 2016 4:14 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A proposal allowing Utah to execute someone convicted of human trafficking even if the criminal didn't actually kill the person would be unjust, costly and likely unconstitutional, opponents of the death penalty argued Tuesday.

The bill from Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, would make human trafficking a capital crime in Utah if the victim dies. Under current state law, someone convicted of trafficking that results in a victim's death faces five years to life in prison.

Ray said trafficking is a terrible crime, and the state has to do something to try and deter it.

"I like to have that threat over the head of the traffickers that if you come to Utah and you traffic somebody, there's pretty serious penalties. It's not just a fine and a couple years in prison," Ray said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah argues that while human trafficking is a serious problem, the state should work to help victims instead. The organization said government-sanctioned killings are unjust and costly.

The ACLU points to a legislative study from 2012 that estimated each death penalty case costs taxpayers about $1.7 million more than a lifetime prison sentence, assuming that each inmate spends about 20 years on death row appealing their sentence.

Ray said he believes an inmate spending life in prison would be more expensive because they can live out their days filing court appeals, but "with the death penalty, you have an end to it at some point."

He said Utah already has a law allowing child abusers to be eligible for the death penalty if they unintentionally but recklessly caused a child's death.

"This is kind of the same thing," Ray said. "Your intent may not have been to kill that individual that you put into trafficking, but if they die, you're responsible for that."

Ray is no stranger to hardline death-penalty proposals. Last year, he ushered in a law allowing Utah to use firing squads in executions if the state can't obtain lethal injection drugs.

He considered running the trafficking bill last year, but he ran out of time before lawmakers wrapped up their business for the year. Ray said Tuesday that he originally wanted to allow Utah to impose the death penalty on traffickers even if a victim didn't die, but he said legislative lawyers warned that could be unconstitutional.

Execution law in the U.S. dictates that crimes must involve a victim's death or treason against the government to be eligible for the death penalty.

Ray's proposal still would likely be ruled unconstitutional, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that imposing the death penalty on someone who did not intend to commit a murder and was a minor participant in the events that led to the death is excessive and unconstitutional, Dunham said.

The Death Penalty Information Center tracks execution laws and proposals, and Dunham said Tuesday that no other state has a similar measure in place.

A panel of lawmakers is scheduled to discuss the proposal Tuesday afternoon. If approved, the measure must pass through a vote by the full House of Representatives and the Senate.