Sponsor of death penalty repeal tweaking bill at last minute

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Republican lawmaker who shepherded a longshot push to abolish the death penalty in conservative Utah said Thursday evening he was working on last-minute changes to his bill, which didn’t appear to have enough support to pass before a midnight deadline, when the legislative session ends.

Sen. Steve Urquhart told The Associated Press he still believed his proposal would receive a final vote in the state’s House of Representatives before lawmakers adjourn.

He declined to talk further or offer details about the changes.

His late-hour revisions came on the heels of his GOP co-sponsor admitting the proposal probably didn’t have enough votes to pass.

“It’s a big, big conversation,” said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns. “It’s a conversation that we haven’t had much time yet in the session to discuss.”

Hours before lawmakers were set to adjourn, the older brother of the last man executed in Utah interrupted legislators by shouting at them from the gallery in the House of Representatives.

Randy Gardner of Salt Lake City, who opposes capital punishment, unfurled a banner with autopsy images of his younger brother while yelling “Nobody has the right to do that to somebody. I don’t care who he is and what he did.”

Legislative security removed the banner and took Gardner outside in handcuffs. He told reporters he was upset that it appeared they may not vote on the repeal.

His younger brother, Ronnie Lee Gardner, was executed in 2010 by firing squad. He killed a bartender and later shot a lawyer to death and wounded a bailiff during a 1985 courthouse escape attempt.

The measure was originally believed to meet quick roadblocks in Utah’s GOP-dominated Legislature, but it cleared the Senate and then squeaked through a House committee this week.

If it passes the full House of Representatives, it will head to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, who supports capital punishment and says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll sign it into law.

Hutchings told The Associated Press he thought about a third of the 75 House members were undecided on the measure Thursday, and the rest were evenly divided.

The debate comes amid a renewed national discussion about capital punishment.

A shortage of lethal-injection drugs in the U.S. in recent years has led several states to pass or consider laws to bring back other execution methods, such as electrocution. Last year, Utah lawmakers voted to reinstate firing squads as a backup method to ensure the state had a way to kill death row inmates if it couldn’t get lethal-injection drugs.

In his push to repeal the practice, Urquhart argues the death penalty is costly and gives imperfect governments a godlike power over life and death.

Urquhart initially was doubtful of his proposal’s chances because of the strong support for capital punishment in the state. But in recent weeks, he said he believed the libertarian-leaning Legislature would pass the measure.

Death penalty supporters argue his repeal would leave prosecutors shortchanged at the bargaining table, where the possibility of execution helps them negotiate plea deals of life without parole. Other critics said the death penalty is a just punishment for especially heinous crimes.

The bill would allow executions to go forward for the nine people on Utah’s death row now but remove it as an option for any new convictions.

Utah is the only state in four decades to carry out executions by firing squad, with three such deaths since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

State lawmakers stopped offering inmates the choice of the firing squad in 2004, saying the method attracted intense media interest and took away attention from victims. But they resurrected it last year, making the practice available for all death row inmates if lethal-injection drugs cannot be obtained 30 days before their execution.

Most Utah lawmakers are Mormon, but the firing-squad effort didn’t seem linked to any teachings or doctrine from the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon church takes a neutral position on capital punishment.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment, and lawmakers, including Republicans, in more than half a dozen other states have suggested their states do the same.

Last year, Nebraska’s Republican-controlled Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty over a veto from that state’s GOP governor.

It became the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the punishment since North Dakota dropped the practice in 1973. But death penalty supporters quickly launched a successful petition drive, leaving Nebraska voters to decide the issue this November.