- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah senators on Wednesday voted to abolish the death penalty, advancing what had been considered a longshot proposal in the conservative state.

The measure marks a stunning turn in Utah, where a year ago lawmakers voted to reinstate the use of the firing squad as a backup execution method. Lawmakers argued last year that if the state has a shortage of lethal injection drugs, it must still find a way to kill death row inmates.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, a Republican, is leading the push this year to repeal capital punishment, citing conservative themes of imperfect governments and capital punishment as a costly and inefficient policy.

“We’re going to pass it,” Urquhart told reporters Wednesday.

When his bill was unveiled three weeks ago, Urquhart acknowledged it would be an uphill battle to win approval in a state with strong support for the death penalty. But he said the libertarian leanings of the Legislature gave him hope.

His proposal cleared the GOP-controlled Senate 15-12 Wednesday, advancing it to the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

Urquhart said he does not yet know how many supporters he has in the House, but he has backing from the chamber’s Republican Speaker Greg Hughes.

Hughes told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he’s been a quiet but longtime opponent of the death penalty. Hughes said he plans to be vocal in his support of abolishing the practice when the bill reaches his House colleagues.

The measure must get a hearing before a House committee and vote before the full chamber sometime before lawmakers adjourn at midnight on March 10. The earliest a committee hearing could occur would be Thursday, but no debate had been scheduled by Wednesday afternoon.

Urquhart said some House representatives have already told him they support the bill, which surprised him. He declined to identify the lawmakers but said he would have “bet and lost a lot of money that they would never support this legislation.”

If the measure wins approval in the House, it could still hit a wall with Utah’s Republican governor.

Gov. Gary Herbert reiterated to reporters on Tuesday that he’s a strong supporter of capital punishment.

Utah’s Senate spent about 20 minutes debating the measure Wednesday, a day after they cast a preliminary vote of approval without a single lawmaker asking a question or contesting the proposal.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, spoke against Urquhart’s proposal Wednesday, arguing that for some crimes, execution is a just punishment.

Weiler cited the case of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

“He murdered hundreds of people and he was executed for that,” he said. “How many people think that was unjust?”

Weiler also disputed a legislative study from 2012 that found capital punishment costs more taxpayer money than a sentence of life in prison without parole.

He and others speaking against the proposal said that while capital punishment is rarely sought in Utah, it should remain on the table to give prosecutors a position to negotiate in plea bargains down to a life sentence without parole.

Other conservative Republicans speaking in favor of abolishing the practice said they have no problem in theory with the idea of killing someone for a heinous crime, but they fear that years of appeals render the death penalty ineffective and they worry the government could execute someone wrongly convicted.

Last year, Nebraska’s Republican-controlled Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty over a veto from that state’s GOP governor. It became the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the punishment since North Dakota dropped the practice in 1973. But death penalty supporters quickly launched a petition drive, leaving Nebraska voters to decide the issue this November.

Proposals to repeal capital punishment have been introduced in at least eight other states over the past year, though it’s unclear how many are anywhere close to joining 19 states and the District of Columbia in abolishing the practice.

___

Associated Press writer Hallie Golden contributed to this report. Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice.

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