- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A longshot proposal for conservative Utah to join 19 states and the District of Columbia in abolishing the death penalty passed an initial vote in the state Senate Tuesday after a five-minute presentation where no lawmaker asked a question or contested the proposal.

Steve Urquhart, the Republican senator running the proposal, acknowledged the lack of discussion during his speech in the Senate floor. He said lawmakers had spent a lot of time discussing the measure outside of scheduled or public hearings.

Once lawmakers started voting, one GOP lawmaker, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, spoke to explain why he was voting in favor. Thatcher said the years of appeals by death row inmates can be difficult for families of victims.

“Ultimately, we have to put the victims first. And delayed justice, decades delayed justice, is not justice,” Thatcher said.

A bipartisan group of senators voted 20-9 Tuesday to advance the measure to a final vote in the Senate, where it could face further debate or changes. The proposal must also win approval from the state’s GOP-controlled House of Representatives and Republican governor, who says he’s in favor of capital punishment.

Urquhart told The Associated Press afterward that he was surprised there was no debate on the floor. The fact that no lawmaker spoke up against the measure could be because the arguments in favor aren’t very strong, he said.

“We have a very strong libertarian streak. For us to believe that government does nothing perfectly, it is kind of weird that we allow government to kill people,” Urquhart said.

He has acknowledged it will be an uphill battle to pass his proposal. He noted Tuesday that even if he loses a few votes in the Senate, it should have enough support to win final approval there.

Urquhart said he began talking with his fellow senators about the proposal before the session started in January, but he has not started having similar conversations with representatives in the House.

One key supporter is House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who said Tuesday afternoon that plans to let his colleagues know that he’s been a longtime opponent of capital punishment.

Hughes said his opposition “comes from a conservative place,” and worry that government is imperfect and could or would inevitably wrongfully execute someone.

Those concerns are some of the same points Urquhart has made to try and sway his colleagues, in addition to arguments about the cost of capital punishment after years of court appeals.

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

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

Urquhart’s 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.

During a committee hearing on the proposal last week, two Republicans voted against the measure, saying they think Utah needs to keep the option out of respect for the family members of victims and as an added measure of justice against horrific crimes.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, reiterated Tuesday 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.

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