For several years, some Wyoming lawmakers have attempted to pass legislation that would repeal the state’s death penalty. Each time, the legislation has failed. This year, however, with the help of some significant – and bipartisan – support, the bill stands a better chance than earlier attempts.
There are several moral arguments both in favor of and opposed to repealing the death sentence. People look at this issue with an emotional lens, because the sentence is reserved for especially heinous crimes. But at the heart of this legislative effort is an argument based on practical issues.
The death penalty is hugely expensive (Wyoming will spend approximately $750,000 in 2020 on the capital defense fund), there’s no evidence that it works to deter crime and Wyoming has only executed one person in the last 40 years.
The primary issue is the complexity of the death penalty – it’s significantly more difficult to try someone under the death penalty, and once someone is sentenced to death, it can take decades to carry out a sentence. Meanwhile, taxpayers are on the hook for the enormous cost required to pursue a death penalty conviction and fight the many appeals that follow.
The legal road to a death penalty conviction is long and complex. And even once a death penalty sentence is secured, there’s no guarantee that the sentence will stick. Dale Wayne Eaton, for example, spent years on death row in Wyoming for a crime he committed in 1988. And after 10 years, his death penalty conviction was overturned.
A primary reason why lawmakers have been reticent to repeal the death penalty in the past, despite its cost, has been the belief that having a death penalty deters people from committing first-degree murder. And if that was the case, the cost might be justifiable. However, there is no evidence to support the idea that the death penalty prevents crime.
The solution to this issue may appear to be in simplifying the trial and appeals process. If we could streamline the process and more efficiently sentence murderers to death and then execute them swiftly, the costs to the state would be reduced and more violent and dangerous criminals would be put to death. But this idea is contingent on a justice system that is infallible. And it would likely only come at the cost of essential constitutional rights that we are all guaranteed. So either we all trust, implicitly, that our court system will only sentence and execute guilty people – or we risk giving a fallible bureaucratic system a fast-track option for sentencing people to death.
That then leaves us with three options: 1) Streamline the system at the cost of our constitutional rights 2) Accept the exorbitant cost of retaining the system that is rarely used and has no other evident positive impacts; or 3) Repeal the death penalty and save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Crimes otherwise eligible for the death penalty would still be treated with the same gravity and punished accordingly — life without the possibility of parole.
Ultimately, whether or not you support or oppose the death penalty on the grounds of your moral convictions, it is clear the status quo is not working to the benefit of Wyomingites, either in keeping us safer from dangerous people or in preventing the waste of our tax dollars. It’s appropriate to look for a better way to dispense justice, because the death penalty as it stands today does not accomplish its intended goal.