Death Penalty Repeal Getting First Serious Debate in Wyoming
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Repealing the death penalty, a non-starter in Wyoming each of the past five years, got a serious look Wednesday from a legislative committee that voted to advance the idea to the full Senate for what could be a last dash to the governor's desk.
Repeal proponents significantly outnumbered opponents in over an hour of testimony before the 4-0 Senate Judiciary Committee vote.
The high cost to the state of giving people charged with capital murder an adequate defense, along with the higher cost of housing death-row inmates, don't justify the reasons for having capital punishment, advocates for repeal argued.
Wyoming's most recent inmate to face the death penalty, Dale Wayne Eaton, spent a decade on death row before a federal judge overturned his death sentence in 2014. Wyoming's last execution, and its only since the U.S. reinstated capital punishment in 1976, was in 1992.
"The reality is we do not have a death penalty, a functioning death penalty, in the state of Wyoming," testified a co-sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Brian Boner of Douglas.
Proponents of the death penalty testified that the threat of death has persuaded criminals to divulge details of their crimes in hope of getting a lesser sentence.
"I think it's a tool in the tool chest. It's there when we need to use it," said Republican Sen. Anthony Bouchard of Cheyenne.
From 2014-2018, death-penalty repeal bills either failed on introduction in the House or died of inaction in House committees. This year's bill got to the Senate Judiciary Committee after passing the House 36-21.
Wyoming's tight state finances appear to have shifted the debate.
Death-penalty cases are expensive for the state Public Defender's Office, totaling at least $750,000 a year. The costs hinge on the twists and turns of cases and are therefore difficult to predict, state Public Defender Diane Lozano testified Wednesday.
"We live in abject fear of getting more than one death penalty case in a budget year," Lozano told the committee.
Wyoming has had little funding to spare since an oil-and-gas boom of the early 2000s fell flat and utilities began turning away from coal to generate electricity. Fossil-fuel industries provide a big chunk of the state's revenue, and Wyoming now faces possible budget deficits.
Yet death-row inmates, who require additional monitoring, cost about 50 percent more to house than general-population inmates at the Wyoming State Penitentiary, Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert testified.
A recent supporter of having the death penalty in Wyoming told the committee he changed his mind after serving on the Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee and considering what else, from schools to senior centers, could benefit from the same funding.
"This is something we really can't afford. It's very, very expensive to keep this on the books," said bill co-sponsor Sen. Bill Landen, a Casper Republican. "If it's really retribution that we're about, I think that putting somebody in their cells for the rest of their lives, that's punishment enough."
Wyoming's new Republican governor, Mark Gordon, has not said whether he supports repealing the death penalty. Capital punishment wasn't a campaign issue last year.
Previous Republican Gov. Matt Mead, a former federal prosecutor, opposed death penalty repeal.