Bill repealing death penalty gets first OK

CHEYENNE — An effort to repeal Wyoming's death penalty passed its first reading Wednesday afternoon in one of the most intense moments of this year's session so far. 

House Bill 145, sponsored by Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, would eliminate capital punishment in Wyoming and replace it with a natural life sentence. The bill was able to make it through its first test on the House floor with 36 representatives voting in favor. 

HB 145 passed out of the House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee last week on a 5-4 vote. 

During debate Wednesday, observers in the Jonah Business Center noted it was the quietest the House floor has been all session.

Lawmakers refrained from side conversations, and instead turned their attention to what was at times heart-wrenching testimony from their fellow legislators. 

Olsen laid out the case against the death penalty, citing the high cost of even having the option on the books. Not only was the death penalty not a deterrent, Olsen said, there are serious issues with giving the government that much power over its citizens. 

"I want to be clear: The effort to repeal the death penalty in no way is meant to diminish the need for justice," Olsen said during the debate, "or to take lightly any of the horrendous crimes or acts that have been committed against our citizens and their families."

Olsen said he'd been asked what he would want to happen if his own family had been murdered, and he would want the perpetrator to be put to death. But he said that desire doesn't reflect the ideals of the justice system, which should be based on reason and not emotion. 

Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, was a vocal opponent of HB 145 during the committee hearing and continued his fight Wednesday. He said the cost of the death penalty shouldn't be an issue because there is a cost associated with seeking justice for victims. 

"The ultimate goal of government is to protect; that's what we're doing," Clem said. "When we're talking about someone who violates the laws of society, government and government alone has been given the ultimate authority (by God) to take away lives.

"There are crimes so egregious, so wrong, so out of touch with reality, and spitting in the face of the public that this should be reserved for them."

Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, said eliminating the death penalty would mean Wyoming would be giving up pursuing justice against someone convicted of first-degree murder. He speculated the next step would be to eliminate the sentence of life without parole. 

Several lawmakers talked about how their own views on capital punishment had changed. Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, originally supported the death penalty. But she said her views changed when she began to consider all the things that government gets wrong. The possibility that the government could put an innocent person to death was enough motivation for her to support the bill. 

Randy Steidl is a living example of the potential for an innocent man to be put to death by the judicial system. The former Illinois death row inmate was exonerated after 17 years in prison and spent the past few days in Cheyenne, lobbying lawmakers to support the bill. 

"They did the right thing, saving millions of dollars, and don't have to put any innocent people through what I went through. Life without parole, to me, is a far harsher sentence; it's torture," Steidl said. 

"I've witnessed men walk by me to their death, and they were smiling. Took me awhile to figure that out until they gave me natural life, and then I realized while they were smiling. They were being released."

Since 1976, Wyoming has only executed one person: Mark Hopkinson, who was put to death in 1992. One inmate, Dale Wayne Eaton, had his death sentence overturned in 2014.