CHEYENNE – The effort to end the death penalty in Wyoming was unable to get past conservative opposition Thursday in the state Senate.
House Bill 145, sponsored by Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, was defeated on its first reading in the Senate on an 18-12 vote. Only the day before, the bill had passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-0 vote.
One of the Senate co-sponsors, Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, laid out the arguments for HB 145 during a floor debate Thursday, focusing on the financial cost for the state, the moral issues with giving government that much power over its citizens and the real possibility of executing an innocent person.
“This is something we have to get right each and every time. We have an excellent legal system, don’t get me wrong. But if you have a death penalty on the books, it should be perfect,” Boner said during debate. “Since 1973, about 164 (inmates) who have been on death row have been exonerated.
“Mr. Chairman, if that number was one, that would be enough to give me pause. But it’s 164 (people) falsely convicted and sentenced to death.”
Other senators who supported the bill tried to focus the debate on both the financial cost of keeping the death penalty bill on the books and the mental cost placed on juries who have to make that life-or-death decision.
The fiscal note for HB 145 estimated the state would save $756,035 in 2020, and in previous testimony, Olsen said he believed it would be even more when other factors were taken into account. Even without anyone currently on the state’s death row, Olsen said local and state government would be saving by not having to staff attorneys and other experts for the potential of a death penalty case.
Since 1976, Wyoming has only executed one person: Mark Hopkinson, who was put to death in 1992. One inmate, Dale Wayne Eaton, had his death sentence overturned in 2014.
Many opponents of the bill focused their arguments on the need for Wyoming to seek the death penalty to ensure justice is being done for victims and their families. But some arguments against HB 145 centered around the religious component of the death penalty.
“The greatest man who ever lived died via the death penalty for you and for me,” said Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne. “Governments were instituted to execute justice. If it wasn’t for Jesus dying via the death penalty, we would all have no hope.”
Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, testified Wednesday in committee against the bill and reiterated his view Thursday that the death penalty remains a strong deterrent for crime, something supporters of the bill argued against. He quoted the son of a murder victim who said knowing his father’s killer was put down like a “rabid dog” gave him some peace.
Bouchard also talked about the push by some to end the death penalty as a way to grow the prison population to benefit themselves financially. The cost of providing care for prisoners is substantial, he said, and he spoke about the potential for having to pay for sex changes for inmates, something that happened in 2017 in California.
Boner said he was disappointed with the result, but pointed out the bill had gotten farther than in any other previous attempt to repeal capital punishment in Wyoming.
ACLU’s Wyoming chapter had worked for the repeal and expressed disappointment with Thursday’s result.
“We are immensely disappointed the Senate chose to keep the death penalty in Wyoming,” said Sabrina King, policy director for the ACLU of Wyoming. “It is costly, ineffective, and it is disingenuous to keep it part of our criminal justice system, as we cannot execute anyone, even if we wanted to. We will continue fighting and look forward to the day we end this disgrace of a practice in our state.”