For the fifth year in a row, Wyoming lawmakers killed a bill that would have ended the death penalty in Wyoming.
The bill failed introduction Friday afternoon after 34 members of the House voted against it, six votes short of the number needed for it to be assigned to a committee for further consideration. Twenty-five representatives voted in favor of it.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, argued before the vote that studies have shown that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to keep others from committing crimes. He also asked his peers to consider the “pragmatic argument”: Ending executions would save the state money. The bill’s fiscal note, which is compiled by non-partisan staff from the Legislative Services Office, states that repealing the death penalty would save more than $1.4 million over the next two years in costs to the state’s public defender office.
“Death penalty cases are complex, expensive and require participation of experienced death penalty attorneys,” Pelkey said.
Both Rep. Bill Pownall, R-Gillette, and Rep. Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis, spoke against the bill and said that the victims of capital crimes should not be forgotten.
“Someone has to stand for the rights of the victims whose blood cries from the ground,” Winters said. “The only one who has the authority to do that is government.”
After the vote, Pelkey said that, all considered, a 25-34 tally was “not bad.”
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Legislators advocating for the end of capital punishment have had a rough ride — in the past five years it has never made it out of its first committee. In 2014, the bill failed to gain enough votes to even be introduced. In 2015, it died in the House Judiciary Committee. In 2016, again, it failed to be introduced. And last year it died in the House Minerals Committee.
This year’s bill has the most sponsors it’s ever had in the past five years: seven Republicans and five Democrats. The death penalty is not a partisan issue, Pelkey said, and those who oppose it cite a number of reasons beyond moral quandaries, including financial savings and the role of government in the killing of its citizens.
“I don’t think it’s the role of government to act in a vengeful manner,” he said. “The personal and moral question is up to every legislator.”
Wyoming last executed a prisoner in 1992 and there are no inmates currently on death row. Of the 31 states that have the death penalty, 16 have not executed an inmate in the past five years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Eleven of those states have not had an execution in the past decade.
Dale Wayne Eaton was sentenced to death in 2004 — the most recent person to receive the penalty. He was convicted in the 1988 killing of a Montana woman, but a federal judge overturned his death sentence in 2014, ruling that Eaton hadn’t received adequate counsel from his public defender. Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen, who prosecuted Eaton’s case, previously said that the Legislature needs to make sure the legal system has the resources to carry out executions if the death penalty remains on the books.
Gov. Matt Mead, a former state and federal prosecutor, has previously said he believes Wyoming should keep the death penalty.
Pelkey hoped the bill would be introduced so that lawmakers could have the important discussions surrounding the issue. Despite the bill’s failure, Pelkey was undeterred.
“Plus, I’m a Democrat, so I’m used to banging my head against the wall,” he said.
Follow features editor Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer