Plan to repeal death penalty in Utah passes first vote

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Republican state lawmaker’s plan to repeal the death penalty in deep-red Utah cleared its first test Wednesday, winning approval from a legislative committee as Utah’s GOP governor said he’s open to signing the ban.

The proposal now awaits a vote by the full House of Representatives, where it has the backing of Republican Speaker Greg Hughes.

Hughes and bill sponsor Rep. Gage Froerer contend that abolishing the death penalty has been seen as a liberal position. But conservatives who profess to be “Pro-Life,” believe that government is imperfect and should be limited ought to also support the ban, they said.

The move to end capital punishment in the conservative state comes three years after Utah voted to reinstate the firing squad as a backup method for executions.

Hughes, who voted to reinstate the firing squad, says that if the government is going to execute people, there’s no need to “sanitize” a brutal act by relying solely on lethal injections.

Froerer, a Republican from Huntsville, said he was a death penalty supporter two years ago but has since come to feel that it’s more efficient and cost-effective to sentence people to life in prison without parole, eliminating the chance that the government executes an innocent person who was wrongly convicted.

“Should government really have the power for life and death?” Froerer asked at the hearing Wednesday.

As the hearing was wrapping up, Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters that he believes society has the right to “eradicate” people who commit the most egregious and heinous crimes, but he says the court cases of death row inmates drag on too long and it’s unfair to victims.

“I’m going to take a very hard look if that passes through the Legislature,” Herbert said, speaking at a news conference televised on KUED-TV. “It’s something I would consider signing.”

If the bill makes it out of the House, where a similar ban on capital punishment failed two years ago, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

The Utah Senate approved the ban two years ago in a close vote. Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, a Republican, said there’s still some support for a ban in the chamber, but he’s unsure if it has the votes to pass again.

If the legislation passes, Utah would join 19 states and the District of Columbia that have overturned or banned the death penalty. Oregon, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Washington state have moratoriums on executions, and several states are considering bans this year.

The proposed ban would not apply to cases where the death penalty has already been sought. The nine men on Utah’s death row could still be executed if the bill passes.

Republican Rep. Paul Ray opposes the ban and says inmates imprisoned for life are a constant threat to prison staff because they have nothing to lose. He also questioned if passing the ban might open up new appeals to inmates on Utah’s death row now.

Dave Noreiga, who was a teenager when his aunt and grandmother were killed at their cabin days before Christmas in 1990, urged lawmakers to keep capital punishment. Noreiga said that for a crime like the one committed against his family, “the only acceptable punishment legally and morally is death.”

Von Lester Taylor has been on Utah’s death row after he was convicted in the case in more than two decades ago but is appealing.

“This isn’t about revenge. This isn’t about deterrence. This is about justice,” Noreiga said. “And you will be depriving our family from it.”

Christine Stenquist, a Kaysville woman, told lawmakers that she had mixed feelings about the death penalty after her sister’s murder in 2010, but her family asked prosecutors not to seek it because they didn’t want to spend decades waiting for appeals. She told lawmakers that she supports a ban, saying “an eye for an eye leaves us all blind.”


Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report.

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