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Effort To Repeal Utah Death Penalty Falls Short In State House

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 11/03/2016 Kim Bellware

The Utah legislature on Thursday abandoned an ambitious bid to repeal the death penalty in the state which would have made life without parole the maximum penalty for murder.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Steve Urquhart (R) abandoned the effort before the midnight deadline. Urquhart told the Associated Press he was closing in on the number of votes needed, but that enough lawmakers remained unsure and a debate would have run down the clock on the legislature's last day. 

Urquhart noted he thinks the bill could be revived in the future. 

The bill was presumed pulled or abandoned several times during the evening. At one point, the session was interrupted by Randy Gardner, whose brother, Ronnie, was executed by firing squad in 2010. Gardner attempted to show pictures of his brother's body after the execution, and was escorted out.  

Supporters of the bill told The Huffington Post on Wednesday that they hoped the bill would succeed -- however, they also admitted that they had been surprised a bill to repeal capital punishment had come together so quickly, especially considering the state's decision last year to reinstate the firing squad as an approved execution method. 

The bill narrowly passed the state Senate last week, less than a month after it was introduced. It passed out of a House committee late Tuesday night and was brought to the floor Thursday afternoon in the waning hours of the session. 

Despite the bill's failure to clear the state House, supporters pointed to the quick momentum of the Republican-led effort as a positive sign attitudes are shifting against the death penalty. 

"Everywhere I go across the nation conservatives are re-thinking the death penalty because it is inconsistent with our values of safeguarding life and promoting fiscal responsibility and limited government," Marc Hyden of the group Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty said Tuesday in a statement. 

Hyden said it was it "unmistakable" that an increasing number of conservative Republicans in Utah are "realizing that the death penalty is irrevocably broken." 

A 2012 legislative fiscal analysis found that capital cases cost Utah approximately $1.6 million more per inmate than simply seeking life without parole. 

The death penalty in Utah is rarely used and even more rarely carried out. The state has executed just one inmate in 16 and a half years. Repeal supporters cited this as a key reason to get rid of the penalty, saying it gives victims' family members false hope that the killer will ever be sentenced to death.  

"It's a counterfeit promise that Utah makes to family members," said former Utah prosecutor Creighton Horton.

Across death penalty states, the average time spent on death row is nearly 16 years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By contrast, the average inmate in Utah spends almost 23 years on death row before facing execution. 

Utah's rigorous death penalty appeals process, which is automatically triggered after conviction, can wind through as many as eight appeals -- and take decades to carry out. 

Horton said the long lag between sentencing and execution undermines having the punishment in the first place.

"Because unless you volunteer yourself ... you’ll probably die in prison before you get put to death," he said. 

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