UPDATE: Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, is predicting the death penalty repeal bill could gain support in the Senate after passing the House.
“I think it might do well for the same reason it did well in the House, because of an interesting alliance between people who are against the death penalty for philosophical reasons, and hardcore conservative folks looking at it from a dollars and cents standpoint,” Gierau told the News&Guide Friday night.
ORIGINAL VERSION: State lawmakers ran through one last round of emotional reflections on the death penalty Friday before pushing a bill to repeal it through the House of Representatives.
House Bill 145 — the first of its kind to last so long in the Wyoming Legislature — is now on to the Senate, after the first chamber passed it by a healthy margin of 36-21. In 2018 a similar bill lost by a roughly reverse “no” vote, and the year before another died in committee.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Laramie, has become perhaps the most morally charged legislation of the session.
“It will, for generations to come, be a testament of where we stand and what we want our laws to say,” Olsen said.
Many arguments for and against the bill grew out of the legislators’ spiritual beliefs or their connections to incidents of violence.
Some pleaded with their colleagues to “remember the victims.” Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Campbell, argued the death penalty should remain as a means of retribution for them and their families.
“They’re not around anymore to be represented by anybody,” Edwards said. “They can’t have an appeal to a higher court to ask that their execution be stayed.”
But others countered that “eye-for-eye” justice, satisfying as it may initially seem, does little to assuage the suffering of those who have lost loved ones.
Rep. Danny Eyre, R-Uinta, grew up with Mark Hopkinson, who in 1992 was the last man to be executed in Wyoming. He knew Hopkinson’s family and the families of his four victims.
He recalled thinking the execution — which he supported at the time — would bring relief to him and his community.
“I felt just the opposite,” he said. “It was a dark, sad day, and it didn’t do anything to help relieve the pain of those family members who had had loved ones killed.”
Capital punishment is already rare in Wyoming. Hopkinson was the state’s first and last execution since the reinstatement of the death penalty nationwide in 1976. The state currently has no one on death row.
Yet several legislators noted that, even without the costly appeals process that comes with a death sentence, the state spends $750,000 each year to keep the public defender’s office prepared for potential cases.
“We’re not using it,” said Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Crook/Weston. “It’s a waste of tax funds.”
Others pointed to the fallibility of forensic evidence and the innocent lives it can endanger in combination with the death penalty. In recent decades, DNA testing has exonerated hundreds of people wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit.
“The facts tell us that we’ve gotten it wrong,” Olsen said. “Over and over and over again.
“You can not guarantee,” he said, “that when it is used, it will be a guilty person and not an innocent person.”