- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A proposal approved by a panel of Utah lawmakers Tuesday could allow the state to execute someone convicted of human trafficking if the victim later dies because of the crime.

The bill from Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, would make it a capital crime in Utah if a trafficker recklessly disregards the victim’s life or intentionally kills the victim.

Ray said that could include situations where a trafficking victim dies because they weren’t given enough water while being smuggled or if they’re sold to someone who later kills the victim.

Under current state law, someone convicted of trafficking that results in a victim’s death faces five years to life in prison.

Ray said trafficking is a terrible crime, and the state has to do something to try and deter it.

“I like to have that threat over the head of the traffickers that if you come to Utah and you traffic somebody, there’s pretty serious penalties. It’s not just a fine and a couple years in prison,” Ray told The Associated Press.

Lawmakers voted 6-3 to advance Ray’s proposal on Tuesday. It must still be approved by the full House of Representatives and Utah’s Senate and governor.

“They’ve done things that are horrific. They’re heinous,” said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem. “This bill makes perfect sense to me.”

Ray’s proposal was originally so broad that critics said it was likely unconstitutional by allowing minor players in a trafficking operation to be eligible for execution.

The lawmaker said he revised the proposal Tuesday afternoon to make it fall in line with Utah’s other capital punishment laws.

Death penalty opponents said the proposal is still unjust and costly.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah argues that while human trafficking is a serious problem, the state should work to help victims instead. The organization said government-sanctioned killings are excessive and expensive.

The ACLU points to a legislative study from 2012 that estimated each death penalty case costs taxpayers about $1.7 million more than a lifetime prison sentence, assuming that each inmate spends about 20 years on death row appealing their sentence.

Ray said he believes an inmate spending life in prison would be more expensive because they can live out their days filing court appeals, but “with the death penalty, you have an end to it at some point.”

He said Utah already has a law allowing child abusers to be eligible for the death penalty if they unintentionally but recklessly caused a child’s death.

“This is kind of the same thing,” Ray said. “Your intent may not have been to kill that individual that you put into trafficking, but if they die, you’re responsible for that.”

Ray is no stranger to hardline death-penalty proposals. Last year, he ushered in a law allowing Utah to use firing squads in executions if the state can’t obtain lethal injection drugs.

He considered running the trafficking bill last year, but he ran out of time before lawmakers wrapped up their business for the year. Ray said Tuesday that he originally wanted to allow Utah to impose the death penalty on traffickers even if a victim didn’t die, but he said legislative lawyers warned that could be unconstitutional.

Execution law in the U.S. dictates that crimes must involve a victim’s death or treason against the government to be eligible for the death penalty.

The revised proposal may be constitutional but that doesn’t mean it’s needed, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

The Death Penalty Information Center tracks execution laws and proposals, and Dunham said Tuesday that he’s not aware of another state with a similar law.

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