“Riveting.” It’s not a word I’ve ever used before in connection with the Wyoming Legislature, and I’ve covered about 20 sessions over the past four decades.
But it’s the best descriptor I can think of for the debate in the House last Wednesday over the proposed repeal of the state’s death penalty. It was an emotional, thoughtful and somber discussion of a topic I never thought would make it to the floor, much less pass the House 36-21 on final reading Friday.
I’ve covered capital murder cases and read a ton of books about serial killers and other heinous criminals, but my basic belief on the matter hasn’t wavered: The death penalty is wrong, for many reasons.
The state should not have the right to take a person’s life. Most of the world agrees with me; 142 nations have abolished the death penalty either in statute or practice, while the 56 that still have capital punishment — China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan etc. — aren’t exactly the beacons of civic virtue we should hope to emulate.
The ultimate penalty is applied unevenly in America, with a highly disproportionate number of minorities on death row. Far too many people have been executed in this country who were later found to be innocent, and hundreds of the convicted killers have languished on death row for an average of 17 years.
The huge fiscal impact of the appeals process drains states’ budgets as taxpayers must cover the costs incurred by both the state and defense for convicted murderers who cannot afford attorneys.
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t wrestled with the thought, deep inside, that some crimes are so horrific that a justly convicted killer doesn’t deserve to live.
So I listened intently as Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne), the young attorney who sponsored the death penalty repeal bill, explained his reasoning in his opening statement to his House colleagues. Olsen said that when he circulated a draft of what became House Bill 145-Death Penalty Repeal 2 among potential co-sponsors, he was asked how he would feel if the murder victim was a member of his family.
“My gut actually said, ‘Yeah, I would want that person put to death,” Olsen said. “But you know what? That’s what’s wrong with the system. My gut is wrong. It’s not based on reason.
“Ask yourself if it’s reason, or it’s blind [justice], or if it’s nothing but fear and anger,” he said.
My anti death penalty convictions might also be erased in seconds if a member of my family was the victim. But Olsen has it right. It’s not the state’s responsibility to seek revenge for crimes. It must punish the guilty, but not solely for the sake of retribution.
Olsen asked a fundamental question: “How much authority do we want to rest in our government?” He noted that since 1973, 150 former death row inmates have been exonerated in the U.S.
“Some say we need a swifter justice system,” the attorney said. “But what if we had one? There’s far too great a risk for imperfect people managing a [criminal justice] system.”
The last person the state of Wyoming executed was Mark Hopkinson in 1992. I covered the small protest on the front lawn of the Capitol when he was put to death at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. It was a frigid night, and I remember looking at the light in then Gov. Mike Sullivan’s office window and hoping he would stop the damn thing from happening.
Hopkinson was convicted of ordering the murders of Evanston attorney Vincent Vehar, his wife Beverly and son John, and was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. He was sentenced to death for ordering the murder of Jeffrey Green while Hopkinson was in prison for hiring Green to kill an Arizona attorney in an unsuccessful bombing plot.
I don’t doubt his guilt in any of the four murders, but I could not see the point of the state taking his life, and I still don’t. Nothing would bring the Vehars or Green back. I think life without the possibility of parole is a just sentence, and arguably one that is even tougher on an inmate than lying on a gurney and being given a lethal dose of chemicals.
Knowing that one is going to spend the rest of his or her life locked up without any hope of ever getting out would be a living hell on earth.
During the House debate the thoughts of Rep. Danny Eyre (R-Lyman) also turned to Hopkinson. Eyre noted that he grew up with the murderer and also knew Hopkinson’s victims.
“He did some terrible things,” said Eyre, who had been a death penalty supporter. “When that actual execution took place, I knew he was guilty and he’d ruined many lives, but it was a dark and sad day.”
Rep. Art Washut (R-Casper) is a retired police officer. You could have heard a pin drop on the House floor as he recalled having to tell three young children that their mother had been killed and their father was probably going to prison, perhaps forever. At a glance he fits the profile of an ardent death penalty backer.
Yet Washut favors taking capital punishment off the books. “I’ve thought about it long and hard and I think conservatives can get behind this abolition of the death penalty in good conscience,” he said.
The testimony of Rep. Andrea Clifford (D-Riverton) was heart-wrenching. Her 18-year-old aunt was raped and murdered.
“I was raised with my cultural beliefs that we shouldn’t live with anger and being bitter,” Clifford, who is Native American said. “It’s not good for humans and not good for the family. It’s not good for the tribe. … It’s for the Creator to decide. We’re not here to judge anyone. We’re humans; we make mistakes.”
Making one of the most pointed, succinct fiscal arguments I’ve ever heard against the death penalty was Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance).
“For every dollar we spend on a broken death penalty system, we are taking money away from programs that would actually prevent crimes, keep us safer and restore the lives of homicide victims’ [families],” Lindholm said.
He rattled off a list of things the state could pay for if it didn’t have to maintain a penalty option that it has used once in the past 50 years: proven gang prevention programs, desperately needed grief counseling, financial assistance for families of murder victims, training and better equipment that would keep police officers and neighborhoods safer.
Olsen delivered the perfect closer to his argument: “If you keep the death penalty, Wyoming will use it. No one can guarantee an innocent person will not be sent to death.”
After seeing other bills repealing the death penalty quickly tossed out by legislative committees over the years, I had given up all hope that our lawmakers would ever enact one. I am amazed but gratified that Wyoming is genuinely considering HB145.
I don’t know what the Senate will do this session, but I do know three things. First, the days of capital punishment are numbered in the state.
Second, moving, unforgettable and rational debates like the one the House just had will bring about the change.
And finally, that Wyoming should thank Olsen for bringing this debate to the forefront of state politics and the attention of the public. When our officials have the courage of their convictions and aren’t afraid to do what they believe is right, we all benefit.