Death penalty opponents are making gains in Wyoming
By Kerry Drake
— September 16, 2014
A lot of good country songs are about prison or death, including “Life in Prison,” which is about both.
I was reminded about the song while driving to the Interim Judiciary Committee’s meeting in Laramie last Friday. I was going to listen to lawmakers talk about the death penalty, and I unwittingly played a CD that featured the Merle Haggard tune.
The story is told by a man who has received a life sentence for killing his “darling” in a fit of rage:
“I prayed they sentence me to die/ But they wanted me to live and I know why/ So I do life in prison for the wrongs I’ve done/ And I pray every night for death to come.”
In the end, the killer sadly concludes, “My life will be a burden every day/ If I could die my pain might go away.”
The idea someone whose punishment is sitting in a prison cell for the rest of his life may have it worse than if he’d been killed by the state is a theme the committee discussed. In fact, it’s a central part of the argument advanced by many who would like to see the death penalty abolished.
But first, legislators debated a bill to address another capital punishment controversy. How can you humanely kill a prisoner by lethal injection if the countries that manufacture the chemicals used in the process consider the practice so barbaric, they won’t sell them to American prisons?
During the last budget session, Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) sponsored a bill to use a firing squad, like Utah does. But problems obtaining the banned chemicals weren’t well known then, and it was quickly defeated. The national media treated it as an example of a trigger-happy state anxious to cull its prison population.
But after horrific, botched lethal injection attempts in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona, the Judiciary Committee not only considered Burns’ bill, it decided to sponsor the measure.
Steve Lindly, deputy director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections, explained if the state can’t use lethal injections, it needs an alternative on the books. Right now the legal option is to use a gas chamber, which presents a problem — Wyoming no longer has one.
Building a chamber would cost a lot, several lawmakers pointed out, and it would be a questionable expense for a state that hasn’t executed anyone in more than two decades, and now has only one inmate on death row.
The draft bill doesn’t have many specifics about how a firing squad would be used. Lindly said that’s intentional, because procedures should be developed through rules and policies instead of in state statutes.
Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna) wanted to know if the state could encourage condemned inmates to donate organs. Sen. Floyd Esquibel (D-Cheyenne) asked what would happen if the penitentiary couldn’t get enough volunteers for a firing squad. What if everyone misses, wondered Rep. Stephen Watt (R-Rock Springs). Rep. Cathy Connelly (D-Laramie) noted it would be odd for Wyoming to add an execution method when other states are moving away from the death penalty. She voted against the bill, as did Esquibel, Watt and committee co-chairman Rep. Keith Gingery (R-Jackson), who is not running for re-election.
Nine members approved the bill, so it will be considered next year. In general, committee bills have a better chance of becoming laws than measures sponsored by individual legislators.
The second proposal, to end capital punishment, drew a much more emotional response. That’s not a surprise, since many hold opposite views on an issue that really is a matter of life or death. But I didn’t expect this: A majority of members actually supported the bill. That would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but the anti-death penalty contingent is definitely changing some minds.
Watt sponsored a similar bill earlier this year that failed introduction by a margin of 2 to 1. A former Wyoming Highway Patrol officer, he reversed his position on capital punishment several years ago. He said we have a good justice system, but it isn’t perfect. “Law enforcement officers do lie,” he explained. “They fabricate evidence; prosecutors withhold evidence.” Watt said he saw it happen when a family member was wrongly accused of sexual assault.
Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) was the most adamant in his support of executions. “This is justice for the victims,” he maintained. “The people who have been murdered, raped and kidnapped, and their families.”
But Gingery, an attorney, said convicts cleared of crimes by the Innocence Project and advancements in DNA technology show the possibility of executing the wrong person.
“Personally, I do not condone the state committing homicide on my behalf,” Gingery said.
Chesie Lee of the Wyoming Association of Churches represents eight denominations and more than 200 churches. “We have a strong feeling that murder is wrong, whether it’s done by a person or the state,” she said, adding that death penalty supporters seek revenge, not justice.
Hicks said some condemned convicts would rather be executed than remain “locked inside a cage the rest of their life.” Lee, though, said that’s not a choice inmates should be allowed to make; they should have to think daily about the crimes that put them in prison for life.
“You just don’t get out of it so easily,” she said.
Burns made two valid points against the bill. “We do not execute people willy-nilly,” he said, and that’s true. Capital punishment is a sentence rarely imposed by Wyoming courts, which is as it should be.
Second, the legislature addressed concerns about capital punishment when it created the optional sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. “We have about 22 people serving (that sentence) and every one of them could have been a capital case,” Burns said.
“Some crimes are so horrible, so barbaric, that it’s a punishment we need to keep in reserve,” he said.
Many people feel that way. But it’s the totality of the arguments against the death penalty that ultimately provides the best case against a punishment that almost all civilized nations reject. The United States joins countries like Iraq and Syria in carrying out death sentences, which isn’t the company we should be keeping.
There’s no way to take back an execution, and correct a horrible injustice if an innocent person is killed by the state.
It costs much less to house a prisoner for life without parole than it does to mount the automatic appeals process that is part of capital punishment.
Some of those public defenders do an inadequate job, and may have absolutely no experience handling a capital case.
Statistics show minorities and the poor are disproportionately sentenced to death compared to white defendants and/or those who can afford to hire a dream team of lawyers.
The death penalty doesn’t truly serve as a deterrent to crime, because criminals don’t expect to get caught and punished.
Finally, the state can’t bring back the victim. It might provide some comfort to survivors to know the guilty party is no longer a threat to society, but that’s also accomplished by life without parole.
While the panel voted 7-6 to end the death penalty, the Judiciary Committee will not sponsor the bill. It takes a majority of both House and Senate members approving a measure to gain such sponsorship, and the bill died 4 to 1 on the Senate side. Only Democratic Sen. Esquibel voted for it.
But death penalty opponents shouldn’t feel disheartened. The bill got five Republican votes from House members, which is considerable progress. Several said they felt the issue is important enough to be debated by the entire legislature.
“It’s a matter of educating people about the issue,” said Watt, who is in a tough battle for re-election. “We should have town hall meetings about it.”
If he returns to the House, Watt said he will sponsor the bill again. Even if he loses, the committee vote shows there should be someone willing to take the ball the Republican legislator put into play and run with it next year.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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