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Marguerite Herman, who represents the League of Women Voters, speaks for doing away with the death penalty during a committee hearing on a House Bill 145 on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, at the Jonah Business Center in Cheyenne. The bill made it out of committee and heads to the floor. Jacob Byk/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – The bill to repeal the death penalty in Wyoming received unanimous support in a Senate committee Wednesday after emotional testimony on both sides of the issue.

House Bill 145, sponsored by Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, would eliminate capital punishment and replace it with a natural life sentence. On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-0 in support of the bill.

HB 145 had previously been approved by the House of Representatives by a 36-21 vote. But the bill could have a harder time advancing as it heads for its first vote in the more conservative Senate.

The high financial cost to Wyoming to maintain the death penalty, the dangers of giving the government that much power and the possibility of executing an innocent person were the main rallying cries for those urging passage.

Gary Drinkard, who was sentenced to death in Alabama before being exonerated, spoke about the irreversible injustice of the execution of innocent people at a public presentation here Tuesday night. He is one of 164 people sentenced to death who have been exonerated.

“Innocent people have been killed,” Drinkard said. “We’re the only civilized nation in the world that still has the death penalty. I don’t understand that. Russia has even abolished the death penalty, and we call ourselves a civilized nation.”

Matt Redle spoke against the bill on behalf of the Wyoming County & Prosecuting Attorneys Association. A former prosecutor in Sheridan County, Redle said there were ways to lower the cost and length of the death penalty process. He said the issue should be taken up during the interim session.

Several senators were in attendance for the committee hearing, but only two shared their thoughts on the bill. Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, spoke out strongly against the bill. He questioned the argument the death penalty doesn’t act as a deterrent for heinous crimes, an argument made Wednesday by Olsen and one of the Senate co-sponsors, Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas.

“This is an important tool to be used,” Bouchard said. “The argument that it’s not being used in Wyoming is, I think, one of the best arguments not to repeal it. It is an effective tool.”

Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, spoke in favor of the bill. She recounted her own experiences with the death penalty and the only person Wyoming has executed since 1976, Mark Hopkinson.

Schuler said she grew up with Hopkinson, who was executed in 1992, and the five people who were killed by his actions. While she thought Hopkinson’s execution would help give her and her community a modicum of peace, she said the execution didn’t solve the hurt she had for losing people close to her.

“I know when the execution happened, there were a number of people in our little valley that felt like it was justified. I had a dark heart about the whole thing, and probably erred on the side that it was a good thing at the time,” Schuler said. “And then it happened. And I have to admit, when I look back at the date it happened, I feel differently.”

Ramsey Scott is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at 307-633-3124 or rscott@wyomingnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RamseyWyoming.

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