Coalition aims to make 2021 the year Wyo repeals death penalty

Father Christopher Xanthos from Cheyenne speaks during a 2019 rally at the Wyoming Supreme Court in support of repealing the death penalty. (ACLU of Wyoming, used with permission)
Father Christopher Xanthos from Cheyenne speaks during a 2019 rally at the Wyoming Supreme Court in support of repealing the death penalty. (ACLU of Wyoming, used with permission)

By , WyoFile

The Wyoming Legislature has considered repealing the death penalty many times. But it’s only come close once.

In 2019 Rep. Jared Olsen (R-Cheyenne) — the first Republican champion after years of Democratic sponsorship — picked up the mantle of death penalty repeal, taking on the subject from an angle of government mistrust and fiscal conservatism, rather than the traditional moral argument against the state-sanctioned killing of a human being.

Though the state has not ordered an execution since that of convicted killer Mark Hopkinson in 1992, simply keeping the death penalty on the books costs Wyoming more than $1 million each year, Olsen explained. Actually trying a capital-punishment case costs taxpayers millions more, he argued.

“A long-held stereotype is that conservatives in this country favor capital punishment, while liberals oppose it,” Olsen wrote in a 2019 op-ed in the New York Times. “But that doesn’t accord with reality: In recent years, more conservatives have come to realize that capital punishment conflicts irreconcilably with their principles of valuing life, fiscal responsibility and limited government.”

But after passing the House of Representatives that winter, Olsen’s bill – House Bill 145 – Death penalty repeal-2 – failed to pass an introduction vote in the Senate. Nearly two-thirds of the chamber voted against it.

Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas). (Photo: Wyoming Legislature)
Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas). (Photo: Wyoming Legislature)

Two years later, the repeal effort has again taken root, this time in the same body that killed it so resoundingly two years ago. Sen. Brian Boner’s (R-Douglas) Senate File 150 – Death penalty repeal advanced out of committee last week to the Senate floor. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, preemptively passed a budget amendment to defund the state’s death penalty program should the Senate choose to repeal it.

Those aren’t the only differences this time around. The bill also comes on the heels of a multi-year public awareness campaign by an unlikely coalition of faith leaders, conservative groups and liberal advocacy organizations to bring a permanent end to the death penalty in Wyoming.

It’s a formula that some close observers of the legislature hope might finally prove successful in a state that has long rebuffed the measure.

The first test of the group’s influence could come as soon as this week, as the Senate begins whittling down a stack of bills on general file. Advocates, who said they sought to work through the Senate first as a strategic choice, are optimistic about the odds.

“I think that as long as we focus on the facts, I think we have a really good chance of getting through the Senate this year,” Kylie Taylor, the Wyoming coordinator for pro-repeal group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said.

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A rare penalty

Prior to a 1972 United States Supreme Court decision banning states from performing executions due to the “arbitrary and capricious” nature of those laws, Wyoming’s territorial and state government successfully executed 25 men. All had been convicted of murder.

The death penalty was reinstated a half-decade later, and in the years since, the state has executed just one man — Hopkinson. Death penalty prosecutions also remain rare, with just one such case, Dale Wayne Eaton, having taken place in the last decade.

Proponents say the death penalty serves as an effective deterrent to violent crime, and can be used as a bargaining chip for prosecutors in gaining information from those they’ve charged with violent crimes. Many supporters also believe the penalty should be an option for families seeking justice.

Those in favor of abolishing the death penalty, meanwhile, argue the rarity of its employment by the criminal justice system justifies ending the practice. Death penalty cases are expensive and arduous, they say, and are emotionally draining on the families of victims and perpetrators, creating a cycle of trauma that rips open scars already slow to heal.

Christal Martin, a Wyoming resident who lost both her mother and husband in separate murders, favors abolishing the penalty.

Losing her mother at 8 years old, she said she had difficulty processing what had happened to her and her family. She spent the next several decades learning about restorative justice in the judicial system, she told lawmakers during a hearing on the death penalty repeal bill earlier this month, and eventually met with the perpetrator on what she called a “mission of forgiveness.”

When her own children lost their father 22 years after her mother’s murder, Martin found herself confronting the issue again, she said. The offender who killed her husband had a family of his own — a 5-year-old daughter and a wife. Martin, who has previously written about the insufficient resources she received from the state’s victim services division to cope with that loss, did not want to inflict another set of wounds, she said.

“At that point in time, I knew the loss of two family members through a violent crime,” she said in her testimony. “And in no way would I ever invite for somebody to go and be put to death, by my hand or by the judicial system, and cause a chain reaction of trauma.”

Christal Martin, bottom right, testifies in favor of abolishing the death penalty via zoom during a Senate Revenue Committee meeting March 4, 2021. The Wyoming resident lost both her mother and husband in separate murders, favors abolishing the penalty. (Screenshot/Youtube)
Christal Martin, bottom right, testifies in favor of abolishing the death penalty via zoom during a Senate Revenue Committee meeting March 4, 2021. The Wyoming resident lost both her mother and husband in separate murders, favors abolishing the penalty. (Screenshot/Youtube)

Supporters of repeal also offer statistical evidence that challenges the death penalty’s effectiveness. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have argued there is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than long terms of imprisonment, according to a policy brief. Some research has argued murder rates are actually lower in states that have banned the death penalty, though a sweeping review of existing research by the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 found insufficient evidence to support whether the death penalty was an effective deterrent to violent crime or not.

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Critics have argued the efficacy of the death penalty also depends heavily on the infallibility of the justice system itself. According to the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973 a total of 185 people who were sentenced to death have been exonerated of the charges against them, while at least 20 were executed despite standing questions about their guilt.

“It’s no longer debatable that innocent people can and do get sentenced to death, and some have been executed,” the Death Penalty Information Center’s executive director, Robert Dunham, told lawmakers. “The data raised serious questions as to whether we can trust our governments to carry out the death penalty fairly, honestly and reliably.”

One of those innocent individuals was Ray Krone, a Pennsylvania man and a military veteran who was wrongfully sentenced to death for murder based off the shape of a bite mark on the victim before his name was cleared by DNA testing. In his own testimony to lawmakers earlier this month, Krone argued the potential for the government to get it wrong was enough to do away with the death penalty. For those who are guilty, the death penalty is the easy way out, he said.

“If you’re about the death penalty and you want people to suffer, you make them wake up each and every day in our justice system, in our prisons,” he said. “So if you want them to suffer, you make them see that every day what they made that family have to go through.”

Others feel Wyoming should keep the measure on its books. Jennifer Burns, a Cheyenne resident who testified against the bill earlier this month, said that she considered the death penalty not only a tool for prosecutors, but a “choice” for the victims of violent crime, particularly for the most heinous and gruesome examples of homicide.

“If my family is brutally murdered, I want that choice,” she said.

As a legislative candidate in the 2020 Republican Primaries in Cheyenne, Burns said she had asked every potential voter on the campaign trail about their support for the death penalty, and heard almost no opposition.

“That is really the wish of Wyoming residents,” she said.

The only other person to testify against the bill echoed those desires, even with the potential for mistakes to be made.

“If someone hurts my family, I want to hurt theirs,” said Jim Merryfield, a Cheyenne resident who testified against repealing the death penalty.

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“I’d like to keep the option open, to be able to put them to death if I feel that it’s necessary,” he added. “Decisions have to be made, right or wrong. Are some mistakes going to be made? Probably … But to take it off the table is to say they don’t have to fear it anymore.”

The persistence of belief

The majority of Americans support capital punishment, according to nationwide Gallup polling data. But that support has been shrinking: in 1996 the approval rating reached its all time high of 80%, today the figure is 55%.

“They say support for the death penalty runs a mile wide and an inch deep, and it’s so true,” Taylor said. “Support for the death penalty is high until you take a look at the facts. And once someone is willing to look at the facts and accept them for what they are, it’s really hard to continue supporting the death penalty.”

Where support has remained consistent over the years, according to Gallup, is among white conservatives, who still approve of the death penalty at overwhelming margins to liberals and in particular, people of color — a group that’s disproportionately represented among death-row inmates.

Researchers have presented numerous arguments for why that demographic’s belief in the death penalty has been so steadfast. However, it is within people’s religious beliefs where support for the death penalty remains the strongest. According to research compiled by the DPIC, those who identify as “religious” maintain some of the highest percentages of death penalty supporters.

In Wyoming, however, the religious community has been an integral part of the campaign to repeal it. During testimony earlier this month, representatives of numerous religious organizations testified in-favor of the bill, with some sharing personal experiences in dealing with the death penalty.

“Should offenders face consequences for their actions? Absolutely,” Ashley Engel, the associate director of pastoral ministry at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Cheyenne, said in her testimony earlier this month. “Is death a fair penalty? Absolutely not. Death is not justice.”

And knowing the tie between religion and support of the death penalty, organizers opposing it here have made religion a centerpiece of their campaign. Between public rallies in Cheyenne and numerous events on platforms like Facebook Live, groups like Taylor’s and ACLU of Wyoming have focused significant attention on organizing with religious organizations, while the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne has evolved from a quiet supporter of repeal to a vocal player in the coalition’s broader efforts in recent years.

“We have to think about where our inconsistencies lie,” Deacon Mike Leman said. “It hit me at one point, like… there is no good time to commit a murder. But if you plan it ahead of time, that’s worse. If you involve others in the planning, that’s even worse. But we’re paying the state to do the exact same thing. There’s a lot of inconsistencies there.”

A slow and methodical approach

For two years, Taylor and individuals like ACLU Wyoming’s Sabrina King have worked to build a coalition that reaches people where they are at their most receptive — through their computer screens, through their churches and their pastors and through conversations that force them to reckon with their emotions at their rawest. The number of people willing to engage in those conversations, Taylor said, has grown steadily since the death of the 2019 repeal bill, allowing her coalition to grow from just a handful of individuals then to dozens of groups statewide today.

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Sabrina King of the ACLU speaks during a 2019 rally at the Wyoming Supreme Court in support of repealing the death penalty. (ACLU of Wyoming, used with permission)
Sabrina King of the ACLU speaks during a 2019 rally at the Wyoming Supreme Court in support of repealing the death penalty. (ACLU of Wyoming, used with permission)

“Repeal is so important to so many of us that individuals who usually aren’t aligned politically are willing to come together to make this happen,” she said.

Whether that will be a winning combination remains to be seen. Facing crippling budgetary shortfalls last year, Gov. Mark Gordon said he was considering a moratorium on the state’s death penalty, calling it a “luxury” the state can no longer afford. And while executions continue across the nation, the quantity has been in decline: a fact proponents of repeal see as a sign the United States’ position on the death penalty may be turning a corner.

“I think that the abolition side is eventually going to prevail,” David Gushee, an ethicist at Mercer University who has studied religion’s ties to the death penalty, said. “It may be that some states will keep the death penalty on the books, but they are increasingly using it less. The number of actual executions is dropping dramatically. There must be reasons for that.”

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.