- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - The Wyoming Department of Corrections should be able to employ a firing squad to execute condemned inmates if the state can’t find the drugs to carry out lethal injections, a legislative committee voted Friday.

Meeting in Laramie, the interim Joint Judiciary Committee advanced a firing-squad bill for the full Legislature to consider when it convenes early next year. The committee rejected another bill that would have called for the state to repeal the death penalty altogether.

Steve Lindly, deputy director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections, told lawmakers that states across the country are finding it increasingly difficult to find drugs to carry out lethal-injection executions. Current Wyoming law sets the gas chamber as the state’s fallback position only if the courts found lethal injection unconstitutional. But the law doesn’t address what to do if the necessary drugs are simply unavailable. The state doesn’t have a gas chamber.

The drug shortage has prompted other states that commonly execute inmates to reach for new substances, and not always with good results. President Barack Obama this year asked his attorney general to review the application of the death penalty after several highly publicized botched executions.

Wyoming has only one inmate on death row. Dale Wayne Eaton is pressing a federal appeal of the death sentence he received 10 years ago for the murder of Lisa Marie Kimmell, 18, of Billings, Montana. Eaton’s lawyers aren’t disputing on appeal that he killed her, but they are arguing that the state didn’t provide adequate resources for his trial lawyers to present evidence of hardships in his life that might have prompted members of the jury to consider sparing his life.

Lindly said the corrections department isn’t ready to proceed to execute Eaton in the event that the federal court clears the way for his execution. “If the court were to set a day and the state were unable to obtain those (drugs), it would be unable to meet the court’s order,” Lindly said.

There’s been talk this year about reinstituting the firing squad in Utah. That state outlawed execution by firing squad in 2004, but kept it as an option for inmates convicted before that time. It last executed an inmate by firing squad in 2010.

Rep. Stephen Watt, R-Rock Springs, is a former Wyoming Highway Patrol officer who was seriously wounded years ago by a criminal. He has been vocal in his opposition to using the firing squad, saying he knows firsthand what it’s like to be shot.

“We’re all operating under the assumption that this is going to be instantaneous death. What happens if everybody misses?” Watt asked. Lindly responded that he didn’t have an answer to that question.

On the death-penalty repeal bill, several witnesses urged the committee to move the bill forward so the full legislature could consider the issue.

Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, said it’s clear to him that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime but is solely an issue of revenge. He said there have been cases around the country of people who have been wrongfully convicted.

“Personally, I do not want the government to commit homicide on my behalf,” Gingery said. “I disagree with the state of Wyoming committing murder.”

Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, responded that he didn’t view the death penalty as revenge, but rather as justice for victims who have been brutally murdered, raped and tortured. He said recent technological advances have made it increasingly unlikely for innocent people to be convicted.

Watt warned that questions of guilt and innocence don’t always hinge on technology.

“Whether you want to admit it or not, law enforcement officers do lie,” he said. “Prosecutors have been known to withhold evidence.”

Linda Burt, director of the ACLU in Wyoming, said the United States stands with such nations as China, Iraq and Syria in continuing to employ the death penalty. “The reason that we are here today is because most Western nations do not believe in the death penalty,” Burt said.

The bill failed to get a majority vote among committee members from both the House and Senate. It would still be possible for individual legislators to introduce a death-penalty abolition bill on their own, although similar bills have failed in the past.

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