A legislative committee has launched a discussion about whether the death penalty should be eliminated in Utah, less than a year since lawmakers passed a bill bringing back the firing squad.
At a hearing Wednesday, the Utah State Legislature's Interim Judiciary Committee broached the subject of ending capital punishment in the state. Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, said lawmakers' positions on the death penalty "are evolving."
"There's some new aspects of reality that I've become aware of that have led me to take a different look at this issue," Sen. Madsen said.
The hearing comes about nine months after the legislature passed a bill bringing the firing squad back as a secondary method of execution in the state. Lethal injection remains the primary method. However, the Utah Department of Corrections has said it currently does not have the drugs required to carry out a lethal injection execution.
Lawmakers on Wednesday discussed botched executions in other states, wrongful convictions, years of appeals and the cost to taxpayers. Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, said appeals cost a lot more than incarcerating an inmate for life.
"The incremental costs of taking these endless appeals, publicly financed appeals for the most part, is $1.66 million in the state of Utah, per individual," he told the committee, adding that taxpayers spent $1.7 million each year to fight those appeals.
The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, which advocates for inmates wrongfully convicted, called on lawmakers to end the death penalty in Utah.
"A repeal of the death penalty or at the very least a moratorium will allow policy makers like yourselves to engage experts from all areas of the criminal justice system," said RMIC's Jensie Anderson.
Lawmakers were divided.
"There's a long list of reasons why I find the death penalty objectionable," said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.
Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, said he was glad to see a discussion started, but: "I would be opposed to taking it off the table."
The Utah Attorney General's Office said it would weigh in on capital punishment and whether it should be repealed during future hearings. While Sen. Madsen pushed for the discussion and said he supported the idea of a repeal of capital punishment, he told FOX 13 he was not planning to run a bill.
Neither was Rep. Handy.
"Bottom line in my mind is I just don't see, unfortunately too much of an appetite to ban the death penalty," Handy said.
Source: Fox news, October 21, 2015
Utah latest red state grappling with death penalty
For the 1st time in years, Utah lawmakers are debating the merits of the death penalty, with some conservative Republican legislators questioning whether the cost and risk of executing innocent people argued for doing away with executions in the state.
''I'd pull the switch if I knew the person was guilty, and I have no problem with an eye for an eye,'' said Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs. ''But it is not a conservative value to have blind, slavish faith in government and to assume that they'll always get it right just because they have a badge or work in the prosecutor's office and we've invested them with a lot of authority.''
Members of the Legislature's Judiciary Interim Committee heard from a pair of legislators in Nebraska about why that state recently abolished capital punishment, and critics of the death penalty who said the cost is exorbitant and the risk of executing innocent people is very real.
Madsen, the committee chairman, described his own evolution on the issue, to the point where he would support following the lead of legislatures in other states and do away with the death penalty.
Other states are already moving in that direction.
Last week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich granted a reprieve to inmates scheduled for execution in 2016, since the state has been unable to obtain the drugs used in lethal injections.
The attorney general in Oklahoma announced a one-year moratorium on executions after it was found the state used the wrong drug in its most recent case.
Earlier this month, a judge in Montana blocked executions in that state for the same reason.
And the Nebraska Legislature repealed the death penalty earlier this year, but a petition drive seeking to reverse the move has blocked the repeal from taking effect until after the 2016 election.
Nebraska Republican Sen. Brett Lindstrom told the committee by phone that he supported the death penalty a year ago, but botched executions in other states and concerns about the cost and false convictions led him to a change of heart.
"It just wasn't something that was working all that well in the state of Nebraska," he said.
Earlier this year, a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of particular drugs in lethal injections. The court has already heard one death-penalty challenge in Kansas earlier this month and is scheduled to hear a Florida challenge later this term.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said the court has made it "practically impossible to impose [the death penalty], but we have not formally held it to be unconstitutional," and that "it wouldn't surprise me" if the death penalty was done away with by the court.
The prospects for such a major shift among Utah's conservative Legislature are unclear, and neither Madsen nor any other Utah lawmaker is currently sponsoring a bill to end the death penalty.
"I don't think Utahns think that much about the death penalty because it hardly ever happens in our state, but when it does, it's a horrific thing," said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton. But he acknowledged polls continue to show public support for the practice. "I don't see - and I'm going to say, unfortunately - too much of an appetite to ban the death penalty."
Handy cited figures he had prepared by legislative analysts in 2012 that showed executing a hypothetical 25-year-old convict would cost the state $1.6 million more than it would cost to incarcerate the same inmate for the rest of his or her life. And the state, at that time, spent $1.75 million a year handling death-row appeals.
More compelling to several lawmakers, was the risk of wrongly executing an inmate.
Jensie Anderson from the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project said there are estimates that 4 % of those on death row in the United States are innocent. Since 1973, there have been 156 death-row convicts who have been exonerated - 1 exoneration for every 9 inmates put to death.
Source: Salt Lake Tribune, October 21, 2015
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