Wyoming legislators won’t consider death penalty repeal

WYOMING — With opposition to capital punishment mounting across the country, Wyoming toed the water but ultimately struck down any hope of repealing the death penalty.

Support for abolishing the death penalty in Wyoming appears to be growing but it wasn’t enough to turn the tide this time around, where a 2/3 supermajority would be needed in a budget session year. House Bill 166 failed introduction in the House Wednesday by a 37-23 vote.

All three Teton County representatives—Jim Roscoe-I, Andy Schwartz-D, and Michael Yin-D—voted for the repeal.

“We’re disappointed that legislators won’t consider a bill to repeal the death penalty this year, but our resolve to end this abhorrent practice remains strong,” said Sabrina King, director of campaigns for the ACLU of Wyoming who supported the bill. “The death penalty is costly, ineffective and it is disingenuous to keep it part of our criminal justice system. It is clear that a majority of the House supports repeal. We know by next year the Senate will as well. One year from now it is our commitment that Wyoming will finally end the death penalty.”

In addition to the ACLU of Wyoming, organizations like the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, the League of Women Voters of Wyoming, Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Church of Cheyenne and Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCADP) also support the repeal of the death penalty.

Kylie Taylor, state coordinator of CCATDP, was encouraged by the growing momentum for the movement. She pointed out the 39 co-sponsors of the bill in both houses is more than twice as many as last year’s repeal bill, and 26 of them are Republicans.

“As conservatives we simply do not trust the government to get it right and the number of people freed from deaths rows backs us up, which is why we numbered the bill 166,” said the prime sponsor of the bill Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, referring, erroneously, to the number of inmates on death row since 1973 now exonerated (164). “And as fiscal conservatives we cannot justify spending about a million dollars a year on a program our state has not used in nearly three decades.”

Wyoming is part of a nationwide trend of conservative Republican state legislators rethinking the death penalty and leading efforts to end it. Last year there were 56 Republican death penalty repeal sponsors in 10 states. Including Wyoming, 30 states currently have a form of capital punishment on the books.

“Ending the death penalty is the conservative thing to do,” Taylor said. “It will cut costs to taxpayers, protect the sanctity of human life, and guard against the government overreaching and executing an innocent person.”

The issue is not so cut and dried. There are moral grounds. If even one irreversible mistake is made, it’s one too many for some.

There are financial concerns as well. According to the Wyoming Legislature, the Department of Corrections states that the cost of proposed legislation is indeterminable due to an unknown number of cases. Currently there are no inmates in the custody of the Wyoming Department of Corrections sentenced to death. Each year of incarceration, per inmate, costs the State, in current dollars, approximately $44,735, including medical costs.

Some lawmakers still felt the threat of capital punishment is a deterrent to murder. Some also feel the punishment is a carriage of ultimate justice. Others, like Rep. Bill Pownell, R-Campbell, bring up another interesting point: capital punishment as a bargaining chip for state prosecuting attorneys.

“Prosecutors around the state are not in favor of repealing this bill. This bargaining chip is used enormously on many cases we have currently in Wyoming,” Pownell said. “In many cases it could mean the recovery of a body that might not otherwise ever be found if that bargaining chip wasn’t there.”

Since 1976, Wyoming has executed one person—Mark Hopkinson—who was put to death in 1992. Another death row inmate, Dale Wayne Eaton, had his death sentence overturned in 2014.

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