Bill to repeal death penalty in Wyoming advanced by legislative committee

CHEYENNE – A bill to repeal the death penalty in Wyoming was advanced by a Senate committee Thursday evening, setting the proposal up for debate in the chamber where it was defeated two years ago.

If Senate File 150 gains approval from the Legislature, Wyoming would become the 24th state to abolish the death penalty, while three other states have governor-imposed moratoriums in place. In Wyoming, abolishing the death penalty would save the state roughly $870,000 annually in funds earmarked for capital cases, a point that bill sponsor Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, emphasized while explaining the bill to the Senate Revenue Committee.

“It’s during this time of fiscal constraint that it’s more important than ever that we reassess state government,” Boner said. “Maybe some things that used to work in the past are no longer relevant, and I submit to you that a prime opportunity to get rid of something that is no longer useful in our society would be by repealing the death penalty.”

Several members of the public spoke in favor of repeal, arguing the death penalty is ineffective and amplifies the pain of victims and their families. Rock Springs resident Christal Martin, who lost her mother and her husband in separate murder cases, said the legal system related to the death penalty causes unnecessary trauma for victims, as well as for offenders’ families.

“Know the amount of trauma that it would also have on a victim to have to go and rehash through, not only the initial trial, but the trial for the death penalty, and then the appeals afterward. It’s like picking off a scab and creating a bigger scar over and over and over again,” Martin said.

Others argued the death penalty can lead to wrongfully convicted people losing their lives. 

Robert Dunham, executive director of the national Death Penalty Information Center, told lawmakers that it is “no longer debatable” that innocent people have lost their lives under the death penalty in the United States.

“The data raise serious questions as to whether we can trust our governments to fairly, honestly and reliably carry out the death penalty,” Dunham said. “Since 1973, at least 185 men and women who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated. That is one exoneration for every 8.3 executions – an astonishing failure rate.”

A repeal of the death penalty in Wyoming also had the backing of the ACLU of Wyoming, the Diocese of Cheyenne, the organization Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty and legal experts who testified during the committee meeting.

“With the Revenue Committee advancing Senate File 150, we’re confident that support will continue to grow among legislators, too,” Sabrina King, ACLU of Wyoming campaign consultant, said in a statement after the vote. “As more information becomes available about the arbitrary and discriminatory manner in which these laws are applied – and as societal standards regarding the death penalty continue to evolve – it becomes increasingly difficult for capital punishment laws to avoid violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

A pair of people who testified were opposed to the bill. 

Jennifer Burns, who ran for office in House District 10 in Laramie County, argued that families that are victims of heinous crimes should be able to have choices on how to proceed legally, and the death penalty provides one of those options.

In Wyoming, which has not executed a person since 1992, lawmakers have been mulling a death penalty repeal for the last few years. The issue regained urgency last year, as Gov. Mark Gordon floated the idea of issuing a death penalty moratorium as a cost-saving measure amid ongoing budget challenges. However, the governor said in a subsequent meeting that the issue was “really something the Legislature needs to look at.”

With the committee’s approval of SF 150, the legislation will now head to the Senate floor for further consideration. In 2019, a bill to repeal the death penalty passed the House, but failed in the Senate by an 18-12 vote.

At the close of the meeting, Boner told the five-member committee that he would need “all of their support” when the bill receives a vote in the Senate.

“If we can keep that discussion focused on the facts, I like our chances when this comes to the floor, but I’m going to need your help,” Boner said.

The Senate Revenue Committee advanced the bill by a 4-1 vote, with only Sen. Tom James, R-Rock Springs, in opposition.

The bill to repeal the death penalty in Wyoming will need three votes of approval in the Senate before it could head to the House of Representatives for further consideration.