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Governor weighing death penalty moratorium to save state money

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Gov. Mark Gordon

Gov. Mark Gordon speaks July 1 at a press conference in Cheyenne. 

Gov. Mark Gordon told lawmakers Monday he was considering a moratorium on Wyoming’s death penalty as a way to save money ahead of a wave of budget cuts in response to declining state revenue.

The announcement, which came in a meeting with members of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, would temporarily bring an end to the little-used practice of capital punishment in Wyoming.

“I’m looking very seriously at a moratorium on the death penalty,” Gordon said. “Whatever I can do to forestall that is an option. It costs us around a million dollars every time that is brought up. These are just luxuries — luxuries, that we will no longer be able to afford.”

While the Wyoming Legislature has so far been reluctant to eliminate the death penalty, Gordon said that the state’s looming fiscal crisis makes maintaining the death penalty an untenable option as he seeks to implement budget cuts of up to 20 percent across the board.

The state is facing a $1.5 billion revenue hole due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as downturns in the energy industry.

Wyoming currently has no prisoners on death row. Some lawmakers have pushed to end the death penalty, arguing that maintaining a capital punishment system that’s rarely used is costly and unnecessary. Annually, more than $1 million is set aside to train public attorneys for the possibility of dealing with death penalty cases that rarely come across their desks — a selling point fiscal conservatives have used to try and convince their Republican colleagues to eliminate the practice in Wyoming.

“No government program in Wyoming is a bigger waste than the death penalty,” Cheyenne Republican Rep. Jared Olsen, who has been spearheading the effort to repeal the death penalty in Wyoming, wrote in an op-ed in the Star-Tribune over the weekend. “It should be the first to go.”

Gordon’s announcement was quickly praised Monday by a number of groups that have worked to oppose the death penalty over the past year, including the national organization Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty, which began a repeal campaign in Wyoming early last year after an effort to repeal the practice fell short in the Wyoming Senate.

“We are encouraged by Governor Gordon’s thoughtful comments on the death penalty today,” Kylie Taylor, the coordinator for the group’s Wyoming chapter, wrote in a statement. “In considering a moratorium, he is showing he wants to prioritize economic recovery over a failed government program that has cost Wyoming millions of dollars without any real benefit. Movement away from the death penalty has become a Western value, with four western states instituting moratoria in the last decade — two of which have since ended the death penalty outright. We know there is growing interest in the Legislature for ending the death penalty due to its high costs, the fact it does nothing to make us safer, and because of the risk of executing innocent people.”

Other groups, like ACLU Wyoming, feel the Legislature should go further and seriously consider a repeal effort in the 2021 general session.

“The death penalty is an expensive, ineffective and unjust government program,” Sabrina King, a campaign consultant for the Wyoming ACLU, wrote in a statement. “The money saved by repealing the death penalty in Wyoming and not trying capital cases would help solve the state’s budget shortfall this year and in years to come.”


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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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A repeal bill has been lobbied by national groups like Conservatives Against The Death Penalty and the American Civil Liberties Union — as well as a number of religious organizations in Wyoming — for nearly a year.

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