Death is not as popular as it used to be.
Back in 1994, Gallup found that a record 80 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder. By last year, however, support for executions had sunk to 56 percent — one of the lowest marks since the 1970s, according to Gallup’s polling data.
It may now be time to see what Wyomingites think, as a group of lawmakers are proposing the state abolish the death penalty as a possible punishment.
State Rep. Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, is among the cosponsors of House Bill 145, and we hope other local legislators will lend their support, too.
The lead sponsors of the legislation, state Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, and Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, have framed the repeal as essentially a cost-cutting measure.
“While we must continue to be tough on crime and keep victims at the forefront of our minds, the death penalty has been found to be ineffective and expensive,” Olsen said in statement.
Many of those accused of murder lack the financial resources to hire their own defense attorney, which means they’re represented by the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office — an arm of state government. And according to state calculations, the public defender’s office spends roughly $750,000 a year just to be ready for potential death penalty cases. That’s despite the fact that Wyoming hasn’t executed anyone since 1992 and currently has no one sitting on death row.
“... We continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to maintain the death penalty,” observed Sen. Boner. “I believe the availability of a life without parole sentence adequately balances the need to protect public safety while recognizing the need to reduce the strain on taxpayer resources.”
We agree with the sponsors: The death penalty is rarely used and comes at too great a cost.
There is a case to be made that, although juries and courts aren’t imposing it, prosecutors are still able to use the threat of execution as a tool.
For instance, in 2012, Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric initially announced he’d seek the death penalty for a Cody man who murdered his wife. But eventually, Skoric struck a deal: The defendant agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of life in prison.
Still, even though the case did not go to trial, it brought a high cost. With death penalty cases being different, multiple public defenders filed scores of motions and documents and ultimately performed $250,000 worth of work. That’s state money that could have been spent elsewhere.
Further, even if a prosecutor is able to get a death sentence, there’s no guarantee that it will stand up on appeal. The last man that a Wyoming jury sentenced to death had his sentence overturned and converted to a term of life in prison — 10 years after he was sentenced. In the time in between, taxpayer-supported defense attorneys likely performed millions of dollars of work on the case.
It’s possible that prosecutors will again pursue the death penalty for the man, which would start the entire sentencing and appeal process all over again
In the meantime, the victim’s family and friends must wait and endure repeated reminders of the crime.
It seems that, for all practical purposes, the death penalty has already been abolished in Wyoming — consider how many horrific murders have been committed in recent decades, with no executions. However, we keep paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to keep the death penalty alive, as not much more than an empty threat.
It might be tempting to suggest that the problem lies with our court system — if only judges would act more quickly and give more deference to a jury’s findings, the death penalty could be effective in Wyoming.
But, we’d ask, can anything good come of making it easier for the government to take someone’s life?
One factor behind the death penalty’s sinking support has been the number of death row inmates proven to be innocent through DNA testing or other new evidence.
Before then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted all of the state’s death sentences to terms of life in prison in 2003, Illinois went through a spell of time in which it exonerated more death row inmates (13) than it executed (12). It’s a chilling statistic.
We may have a more just legal system in Wyoming, but like anything else that involves people, we will sometimes get it wrong, too. In most cases, we can make some kind of amends for a wrongful conviction — releasing a person from prison or even providing them with compensation. When someone is executed, however, that mistake is irreversible.
And it’s a risk that’s not worth taking.