Utah Senate panel OKs longshot death penalty repeal

AP News
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Posted: Feb 23, 2016 8:34 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A longshot proposal for conservative Utah to join 19 states and the District of Columbia in abolishing the death penalty cleared its first test at the state Legislature on Tuesday evening.

A bipartisan group of senators on a judiciary committee voted 5-2 to advance the measure to Utah's Senate for debate, but one Republican voting for the measure said he was conflicted and may not support it later. That debate could happen as soon as this week.

Steve Urquhart, the Republican senator running the proposal, acknowledges that there's strong support for capital punishment with Utah's GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican governor. But Urquhart hopes arguments about the cost of capital punishment after years of court appeals and the chance of wrongful convictions may sway some of his colleagues.

"Government shouldn't be in the business of killing. It's not our place. It's wrong for us to assume that because we aren't infallible," Urquhart said.

His fellow Republican, Sen. Mark Madsen, agreed.

"If I knew they were guilty, I have no moral compunction whatsoever pulling the trigger, pulling the switch, whatever it is, but I don't have that level of confidence in government," he said. "It's an irreversible error."

That same mix of practical concerns and broader moral and philosophical questions has led conservatives in other red states to re-examine longstanding support for capital punishment in recent years.

Last year, Nebraska's Republican-controlled Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty over a veto from that state's GOP governor. It became the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the punishment since North Dakota dropped the practice in 1973. But death penalty supporters quickly launched a petition drive, leaving Nebraska voters to decide the issue this November.

Lawmakers in Missouri debated earlier this month whether they should repeal that state's death penalty, but a Republican leading the effort said he doesn't think there's enough support to move the issue forward.

In at least seven other states, legislators have introduced similar measures over the last year and many have attracted Republican backers. But it remains unclear how many of the proposals will gain enough support to pass anytime soon.

More conservatives are echoing concerns that Urquhart has raised in Utah, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

"There is significant evolution that is taking place before our eyes in the views of conservatives about the death penalty," he said Tuesday.

He said states like Utah and Missouri are unlikely to move away from executions in the next year or so.

But as more libertarians and those espousing a conservative, anti-abortion philosophy join traditional opponents of the death penalty on the left, Dunham said, "it's that coalescing that creates the sense of inevitability."

In Utah, Urquhart said his proposal is a longshot, but a strong libertarian streak among lawmakers could lead to some surprises.

His proposal would allow executions to go forward for the nine people on Utah's death row now, but remove it as an option for any new convictions.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, a Republican, said he voted to move the bill forward Tuesday because it's an important discussion for lawmakers to have. But he said he's not sure if he'll support the bill when it comes before the full Senate for a vote.

"There are cases— the most extreme, the most gruesome, the most horrific cases— that I believe there should be a more significant punishment," he said.

Two Republicans voting against the measure said they think Utah needs to keep the option out of respect of the family members of victims and as an added measure of justice against horrific crimes.

In the unlikely event Urquhart's plan gets enough bipartisan support to pass this year, it's unclear if Utah's Republican Gov. Gary Herbert would approve it.

Herbert said in October that he's a strong supporter of capital punishment but it should only be used for "the most heinous of crimes."

Herbert signed a law last year that bolstered the state's execution policy by ordering that a firing squad be used if lethal injection drugs cannot be obtained.

Urquhart voted for the firing squad bill, saying that if Utah has a death penalty law on the books, it should have an efficient way to carry out the practice.

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Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice .