A measure to repeal the state death penalty was defeated within the Wyoming Senate last week and has been indefinitely postponed, elected officials say.
The bill, Senate File 150 (SF150) would have eliminated the death penalty from the state statutes and replaced it with life without parole.
The measure failed on the Senate floor March 18 with 11 votes for and 19 against it after nearly two hours of debate.
The facts are that the state is in a financial crisis and the death penalty is an extraordinarily expensive element of Wyoming’s criminal justice system, bill sponsor Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas) said, adding that the punishment is unnecessary considering how often it’s used.
In the last 30 years, no criminal has been put to death in Wyoming, Boner said, adding that the only thing real about the death penalty is the cost.
Every year, the legislature allocated $500,000 for capital trial defense training within the public defender’s office. On top of that, every capital trial can cost the state between one and two million dollars, according to Boner.
In each of the 14 capital cases within the last 15 years where prosecutors have sought the death penalty, every defendant received life in prison without parole, Boner said.
In every case, the yield was the same as if the legislature had simply repealed the death penalty all together, Boner said.
But the fact that it is difficult to put a criminal to death is not a reason to abolish the death penalty, argued Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), who said that he didn’t come to Cheyenne as a senator to defend the lives of monsters and that the legislature should be talking about defending innocent lives.
“It’s not supposed to be easy, it should be difficult,” Bouchard said, adding that the death penalty can serve as a useful tool to leverage killers into revealing the locations of their victims.
Some issues exist with the current death penalty, he conceded, such as legal loopholes that enable capital offenders to escape a death sentence, but it is still an appropriate absolute punishment that should be kept on the books.
“It’s not a matter of if, but when one of these monsters rears their ugly head in this state,” Bouchard said.
Sen. Tera Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) agreed with Bouchard and said that the death penalty is a viable way to ensure criminals, charged and convicted of heinous acts, are held accountable for their actions.
“When that person chose to take a life, usually more than one and usually heinously, they made that choice,” Nethercott said. “The state didn’t make it for them.”
The state could repeal the death penalty now, only to wind up reinstating it in five years if another serial killer comes through I-80 and takes somebody’s loved one, Nethercott said.
“Balance, retribution, mercy, humanity, justice; all of those things go into this decision,” Nethercott said. “Just because you’re for the death penalty does not mean you’re for vicious, vindictive retribution.”
While the death penalty may be a useful tool, it doesn’t necessarily serve in the best interests of a victim’s family, said Sen. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer), who offered an emotional testimony regarding his personal experience with the fallout of a killer who claimed the life of someone dear to him.
“I have a young man living in my house. Ten years ago, he lost his mother,” Baldwin said. “Up to that time, I was a big proponent of the death penalty. I was adamantly for it. My point has changed; that young man came from a broken home where a monster killed his mother.”
Every time the killer comes up for parole, this young man has to face him and that open wound is torn open even more, Baldwin said.
“The death penalty wouldn’t have changed that at all. (The killer’s) still a monster, no doubt about it. It was a brutal murder,” the senator said. “But the fact of the matter is, the death penalty wouldn’t have changed anything. I’m a firm believer that the death penalty, according to my morality and ethics, is wrong.”
Sen. Cale Case voiced another contention that the death penalty, though widely viewed as an effective deterrent, could encourage a killer to take more lives.
“There are horrible creatures in this world that walk on two legs and do horrible, horrible things. The death penalty doesn’t stop that,” Case said. “There’s actually a piece of that, the drama of a death penalty execution, that is desirable to some people.”
Instead of giving them the satisfaction of a public trial and publicity, just put them away, Case said, don’t give them the big grandstand.