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Utah GOP lawmakers pushing to end death penalty

SALT LAKE CITY — Republican state lawmakers, including House Speaker Greg Hughes, are again pushing to end the death penalty in Utah.

Hughes, R-Draper, said ending capital punishment is usually seen as "left-leaning, liberal" endeavors but that he supports that effort as a "staunch conservative." Government, he said, "can and will" get it wrong when it comes to executing someone.

"I think it's an outdated form of punishment, and I think we as a society in 2018 are better than that," he said at a news conference Tuesday at the Capitol.

"Let’s put them in pink jumpsuits and let them break rocks all their living days, I don’t care," Hughes said. "But at least you’re not going to get it wrong; at least you can take it back if you did it the wrong way."

Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, introduced legislation, HB379, that would ban the state from seeking the death penalty for aggravated murder committed after May 7, 2018. It would not affect the nine men on Utah's death row now.

"I don’t think it’s the government's right to take life," Froerer said, noting that he is pro-life on abortion. "Let's be pro-life from first born to the existing people that we have in our society. You're either pro-life, in my opinion, or you're not."

An outspoken death penalty proponent, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, turns that argument around.

"But what about the individuals that support abortion but yet they don't want these monsters to be killed," he said. "If you support abortion, man, why aren't you supporting terminating the life of a monster?"

In 2016, a bill to outlaw capital punishment in Utah passed in the Senate but died in the House. Both Froerer and Hughes say they have had a change of heart over capital punishment since then. They expect an uphill battle again this year.

The two lawmakers argue that prosecuting death penalty cases costs of millions of dollars and results in prolonged appeals that revictimize families and glorify killers.

"I worry that the death penalty overpromises and underdelivers by way of justice," Hughes said.

Ray said he favors capital punishment because of the "justice factor." Utah, he said, has the highest bar in the nation to get on death row, and it's for the "worst of the worst."

The last time the bill came up in the Legislature, victims' families testified in favor the death penalty because they feared the criminal would get out someday and terrorize them again, he said.

"The one thing that actually brought relief to the families is knowing that this person will never be out," Ray said.

Former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman was pro-death penalty during his decade as prosecutor, but now says he was wrong. Tolman said the time he spent with victims' families taught him that most want the killer to understand and think about the crime for their entire lives.

Tolman said he also talked with criminals who have committed awful crimes, and the possibility of execution was not a deterrent to them.

Ray contends putting someone death is a deterrent because that person will never commit a crime again.

Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he will not support legislation doing away with the death penalty after talking with the families of victims, including the Chinese student shot to death near the University of Utah.

"When somebody's life is taken, it's a big deal, and I think we need to look at the whole effect of that," Adams said.

Three years ago, the Legislature passed a law allowing the state to use a firing squad to execute death row inmates when the drugs necessary for lethal injection are not available.

Hughes voted for the bill and explained Tuesday that he doesn't like the effort to "sanitize" executions so as to "not offend the senses."

"If we're going to have an execution, if we're going to put people to death, what would be wrong with the firing squad versus any other method, other than maybe it shows the brutality of it?" he said. "I don't know how you can be supportive of the death penalty and oppose the firing squad."

The speaker went on to say that if the firing squad is an option, "we should probably televise it, let everyone see it, let it be streamed live."

"If we feel that the firing squad is somehow unacceptable, we need to ask ourselves, why? Why do we feel that way," Hughes said.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he had "mixed feelings" about voting for a bill abolishing the death penalty two years ago but still senses there is support for the issue.

"We'll see what happens," he said.

Niederhauser said he was not surprised that Hughes favors the bill, even though the 45-day session is more than half over.

"He's very passionate about issues. I respect that completely," the Senate president said. He said there's still time to consider the legislation, noting this wasn't the first time lawmakers have dealt with the issue.

"It still may take several years," Niederhauser said.

Also Tuesday, the House passed a bill calling for study on the costs of capital punishment. A previous study estimated the cost at $1.6 million, but some, including Ray, have disputed that number.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche