CASPER — Eight states have abolished the death penalty in the past two decades. Capital punishment opponents in Wyoming have tried many times to follow suit, with a repeal bill having been introduced in the state Legislature nearly every year this decade.
Each time, the effort has failed.
Most bills are dead on arrival, failing introduction by committee vote. In the 2018 budget session, Laramie Democrat Charles Pelkey attempted to bring a death penalty repeal bill to the floor but failed to achieve the two-thirds margin required for introduction.
Something different happened this winter. Backed by Cheyenne Republican Jared Olsen, a death penalty repeal bill — for the first time in history — slowly gathered the momentum it needed to clear the House, eventually passing onto the Senate by a healthy 15-vote margin.
But despite that unprecedented level of support, the Wyoming Senate shot down the bill as it neared the finish line.
Olsen, however, is not discouraged. In a Thursday interview with the Casper Star-Tribune, Olsen said he will do all he can to ensure 2020 is the year Wyoming finally repeals the death penalty.
“We will bring a bill during the 2020 budget session to repeal the death penalty,” Olsen said. “We’re hoping between now and then to build more consensus and more support through education. We believe that is a missing component between failure and success. Those legislators who took the time to learn about the cost, learn about the moral considerations and really think about their decision, made the right choice. And those we maybe didn’t get — whether it was the full education component or who we didn’t spend the right amount time with — we think we can change a lot of those hearts and votes.”
Efforts to change those minds, he said, will begin next week.
At noon Tuesday on the steps of the Wyoming Supreme Court, Olsen — joined by ACLU of Wyoming Director Sabrina King — will kick off a statewide education campaign to gain support for ending the death penalty.
The 2019 repeal effort bore a number of notable differences from years past. In hearings and in the halls of the temporary capital in Cheyenne, a mix of individuals — from legal experts to religious representatives and, at one point, an exonerated inmate from Illinois’ death row — lobbied lawmakers. Those efforts, however widely supported, were largely confined to the Wyoming Legislature — one of the reasons King said the effort wasn’t successful.
“There is always a need for a good public discussion for the mobilization of people on the ground and in legislators’ districts to really make the eventual repeal of the death penalty a statewide-supported effort,” King said. “That’s what we’re trying to put legs to. We feel we know that support is in, but we want to bring people in and give them the ability to voice their opinion and say to their legislators, to say to the governor, ‘We want to repeal the death penalty. This is something we support. So let’s do it now.’”
King said Thursday that the effort will focus on educating local leaders and Wyoming residents from the town and county levels all the way up the ladder. In addition to receiving assistance from religious and civil groups, the effort would have a dedicated social media campaign, a website and, further down the road, a campaign organizer with the explicit purpose of spreading the message of repeal statewide.
“Our hope is, by launching the campaign and really moving this work forward, we can help formalize that coalition and really bring together a broad base of people around Wyoming who are interested in ending the death penalty and really try to shift the money, time and resources involved in that to other things,” she said. “It’s very rare when you have an issue so many people are behind where you could actually make that happen.”
Meanwhile, Olsen has planned other means of eliminating the death penalty, including prospects of introducing a bill within the Joint Appropriations Committee to eliminate a chunk of the roughly $1 million in funding it costs to keep the law on the books each year.
“I can’t say right now that my immediate strategy will be to reduce it to zero, but we will take a really hard look at making some adjustments to the funding during the 2020 budget session,” Olsen said.
Other options remain as well. Though a ballot initiative – a difficult prospect in Wyoming – is not on the table, Olsen pointed to a recent moratorium on the death penalty that was unilaterally implemented by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, something Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon could pursue if he chose to.
The legislative option, however, remains the most realistic one, and the only means of permanently eliminating the death penalty. In budget years, lawmakers need a two-thirds majority on the floor to have noncommittee bills heard. Olsen, given this year’s level of support, believes he can make that happen.
“Based on our sponsorship alone and our votes, we have the two-thirds we need, and there were some missing members who were committed ‘aye’ votes this year,” Olsen said. “We know we have the votes, and I feel we’ve grown the votes through our efforts.”