SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A surprising push to abolish the death penalty in deep-red Utah ran out of steam, as the Republican lawmaker shepherding the measure said he didn't have enough votes to pass it before a midnight deadline.
The proposal won enough support in the GOP-dominated Legislature to be one debate and vote away from final passage, a surprising turnaround from lawmakers' vote a year ago to revive the use of firing squads in executions if lethal drugs are unavailable.
"I think that people ruled us out at every step and we kept progressing," said state Sen. Steve Urquhart, the Republican pushing to end capital punishment.
Unable to secure enough votes, Urquhart abandoned the push Thursday night after briefly shopping the idea of a moratorium instead.
The lawmaker told The Associated Press that he came very close to securing a majority of votes from the 75 members of the House of Representatives. But he said too many undecided legislators would have needed hours of convincing.
"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," he said.
Even if it had passed, the measure faced an uncertain future with Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who supports capital punishment in extreme cases but wouldn't say if he would veto the measure.
Herbert told the AP on Thursday evening that he was concerned about the decades of delays that death row inmates spend appealing their sentences and higher costs of capital cases.
"I'm pro-death penalty, but with the parameters that it's done on very rare occasions for the most heinous of crimes," he said. "And that's how Utah has utilized it over the last 40 years. We've only had seven executions in 40 years. This is not Texas."
The governor said he was a bit surprised how much support the repeal measure had received.
Shortly before Urquhart said he was ending the push, the older brother of the last man executed in the state interrupted legislators by shouting at them from the House gallery.
Randy Gardner of Salt Lake City, who opposes capital punishment, unfurled a banner with autopsy images of his younger brother while yelling "Nobody has the right to do that to somebody. I don't care who he is and what he did."
Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed in 2010 by firing squad. He killed a bartender and later shot a lawyer to death and wounded a bailiff during a 1985 courthouse escape attempt.
Legislative security removed the banner from Randy Gardner and took him outside in handcuffs. He told reporters he was upset that it appeared lawmakers would not vote on the repeal.
"They're not listening to us," he said.
Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment, and lawmakers, including Republicans, in more than half a dozen other states have suggested their states should do the same.
The Utah repeal measure was originally believed to meet quick roadblocks in Utah, but Urquhart framed the issue in terms that appealed to lawmakers' libertarian leanings. He argued that the death penalty is costly and gives imperfect governments a godlike power over life and death.
Death penalty supporters argued Urquhart's repeal would leave prosecutors shortchanged at the bargaining table, where they would otherwise negotiate a plea deal of a life sentence without parole in lieu of execution.
Other critics said that for especially heinous crimes, execution is a just punishment.
The debate comes amid a renewed national discussion about capital punishment.
A shortage of lethal-injection drugs in the U.S. in recent years has led several states to pass or consider laws to bring back other execution methods, such as electrocution. Last year, Utah lawmakers voted to reinstate firing squads as a backup method to ensure the state had a way to kill death row inmates if it couldn't get lethal-injection drugs.
Utah lawmakers stopped offering inmates the choice of firing squad in 2004, saying the method attracted intense media interest and took away attention from victims.
Last year's resurrection of the firing squad made it an option for all death row inmates, if drug cannot be obtained 30 days before their execution. Utah is the only state in four decades to carry out such a death sentence, with three executions by firing squad since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Most Utah lawmakers are Mormon, but the firing-squad effort didn't seem linked to any teachings or doctrine from the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon church takes a neutral position on capital punishment.