- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2016

A push to abolish capital punishment in Utah failed late Thursday with lawmakers unable to garner enough support to pass a bill banning it before the end of the 2016 legislative session.

That the bid to do away with the death penalty was passed in the Senate and a House committee vote this week and was set to be voted on by the full House was a surprising turn of events for a Republican-led legislature that just last year opted to revive the use of firing squads in executions if lethal-injection drugs were not available.

The failed legislation would have eliminated capital punishment for first-degree felony aggravated murder convictions. Instead, convicts could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

“Given the pressure of the last night, the votes I needed to swing, I didn’t see them swinging,” Sen. Steve Urquhart told the Salt Lake Tribune.

In the final hours before lawmakers ended the bid, the brother of a man executed in 2010 by a Utah firing squad stormed the House gallery in a protest against capital punishment.

Randy Gardner unfurled a banner with autopsy images of his younger brother.

“Nobody has the right to do that to somebody. I don’t care who he is and what he did,” Mr. Gardner yelled, according to The Associated Press.
Ronnie Lee Gardner was the last person put to death by the state. He had killed a bartender and later killed a lawyer and wounded a bailiff during an attempt to escape from a courthouse in 1985.

While 31 states currently allow the death penalty, Utah is the only one that uses a firing squad to carry out executions. At least three of the eight inmates currently on Utah’s death row have chosen to be executed by firing squad.

Even if the Utah legislature had voted to ban capital punishment, it was unclear whether Gov. Gary Herbert would have signed it into law. The Republican governor has said he supports capital punishment in extreme cases but had not confirmed whether he might have vetoed the measure.

Use of the death penalty has fallen precipitously in recent years.
Of the 19 states that have banned death penalty, seven have done so since 2007 and overall use of capital punishment has been on the decline. In 2015, just six states carried out a total of 28 executions, the lowest number since 1991, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Nebraska, where lawmakers voted in 2015 to abolish the death penalty, is set to vote in a referendum later this year whether or not to bring back the practice.

Groups that oppose capital punishment, though disappointed by Utah’s failure to pass the ban, were hopeful because of the progress the proposal made this year.

“Following the Utah Senate’s decision to repeal the death penalty and the Utah House committee’s support of repeal, it is unmistakable that an increasing number of conservative Republicans in Utah, like those in Nebraska, are realizing that the death penalty is irrevocably broken,” said Marc Hyden, national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “Everywhere I go across the nation, conservatives are re-thinking the death penalty because it is inconsistent with our values of safeguarding life and promoting fiscal responsibility and limited government.”

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