Death Penalty Repeal Stalls On Final Day of Utah Legislative Session

Affiliate: ACLU of Utah
March 11, 2016 9:45 am

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SALT LAKE CITY— Today the Utah House of Representatives ran out of time to consider a repeal of the death penalty in that state. The measure, SB 189, sponsored by Senator Steve Urquhart (R-Saint George), has passed in the Utah Senate the previous week.

“Although I am disappointed the bill didn’t have a chance to clear this hurdle to passage, I am very proud of the progress we made,” remarked Karen McCreary, ACLU of Utah Executive Director. “Utah’s legislative leaders, led by Senator Urquhart and encouraged by many from the community, looked hard at the reality of our failed death penalty system and took important steps to move to a more just and effective alternative.”

This effort to repeal the death penalty in Utah was undertaken by a coalition of organizations working in collaboration with Sen. Urquhart, including: the ACLU of Utah, Libertas Institute, Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center and the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. Several of these organizations have been working together for several years to pursue abolishment; they came together at the time of the high-profile firing squad execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010, the last individual in Utah to be executed by the state.

“In the past year or two, several new partners, who approach this issue from the conservative side of the political spectrum, have joined with us in an enthusiastic push for full repeal,” explained Marina Lowe, Legislative and Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Utah. “We never gave up, and this effort is far, far from over.”

The ACLU has been long opposed to state-sanctioned executions. Not only does the organization believe that the death penalty is unconstitutional by virtue of being “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment, but that in practice, the death penalty is arbitrarily and discriminatorily applied across the country.

In 2012, the Utah Legislature intently studied the death penalty at the request of Rep. Stephen Handy (R-Layton); Handy’s father, as a high-level correctional administrator, oversaw a botched execution. As part of the months-long study effort in 2012, legislative fiscal analysts examined the high cost of the death penalty in Utah, estimating that it costs the state an additional $1.6 million to pursue a capital case from trial to execution (rather than life without parole).

In 2015, Utah’s death penalty again was in the spotlight, when Rep. Paul Ray (R-Clearfield) successfully pushed legislation to ensure that the state could use the firing squad as an execution method, regardless of the condemned person’s decision, should lethal injection drugs become unavailable or prohibited. The state received negative attention both nationally and internationally for what was perceived as a return to a particularly barbaric execution method.

“In Utah, our legislators have always had sort of indirect conversations about the death penalty, but they’ve never been asked for a straight up or down vote on whether we should be doing it at all,” explained Lowe. “As we began to speak to lawmakers about this issue, we found that their views were surprisingly complex; many shared our concerns about the danger of executing innocent people, the high financial and emotional costs, and the arbitrary way in which the death penalty is applied.”

Nebraska’s legislative repeal of the death penalty last year made a similar effort in Utah seem increasingly possible; Nebraska lawmakers who participated in that effort whole-heartedly offered to discuss the matter with their Utah colleagues. Strong support from Speaker of the House Greg Hughes (R-Draper), coupled with an influential and eloquent sponsor in Sen. Urquhart, made for a unique opportunity.

“We at the ACLU of Utah, along with so many others across our state, will continue to work together with full confidence that Utah will enact a repeal of the death penalty sometime soon,” pledged McCreary. “Capitol punishment is an intolerable and irreversible denial of civil liberties, it is degrading to the human dignity of all those involved and is antithetical to a just and democratic society. We must end the practice of state-sanctioned execution – and we fully believe we will.”


Anna Brower, Strategic Communications Manager

(801) 871-0331 or

Marina Lowe, Legislative& Policy Counsel

(801) 871-0333 or

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