CHEYENNE — An effort to repeal Wyoming’s death penalty passed its first reading Wednesday afternoon.
House Bill 145, sponsored by Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, would eliminate capital punishment in Wyoming and replace it with a natural life sentence. The bill made it through its first test on the House floor with 36 representatives voting in favor. The House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee passed HB 145 last week on a 5-4 vote.
During compelling debate Wednesday, Olsen laid out the case against the death penalty, citing the high cost of even having the option on the books. Not only has the death penalty not been a deterrent, Olsen said, there are serious issues with giving the government that much power over its citizens.
“I want to be clear: The effort to repeal the death penalty in no way is meant to diminish the need for justice or to take lightly any of the horrendous crimes or acts that have been committed against our citizens and their families,” Olsen said.
Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, a vocal opponent of HB 145 during the committee hearing, continued his fight Wednesday. He said the cost of the death penalty shouldn’t be an issue because there is also a cost associated with seeking justice for victims.
“The ultimate goal of government is to protect; that’s what we’re doing,” Clem said. “There are crimes so egregious, so wrong, so out of touch with reality and spitting in the face of the public that [the death penalty] should be reserved for them.”
Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, said eliminating the death penalty would mean Wyoming would be giving up pursuing justice against someone convicted of first-degree murder. He speculated that the next step would be to eliminate the sentence of life without parole.
Several lawmakers talked about how their own views on capital punishment had changed. Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, originally supported the death penalty. But she said the possibility that the government could put an innocent person to death was enough motivation for her to support HB 145.
Randy Steidl is a living example of the potential for an innocent man to be put to death by the judicial system. The former Illinois death row inmate was exonerated after 17 years in prison and spent the past few days in Cheyenne, lobbying lawmakers to support the bill.
“They did the right thing, saving millions of dollars, and don’t have to put any innocent people through what I went through. Life without parole, to me, is a far harsher sentence. It’s torture,” Steidl said.
Since 1976, Wyoming has executed one person: Mark Hopkinson, convicted of murdering four people, was put to death in 1992.