Effort to abolish Utah’s death penalty fails again with lawmakers

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, presents HB379, which would end the death penalty in Utah, before a packed room in the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.

For the second time in recent years, a bill to abolish the death penalty in Utah has failed to gain enough traction to become law.

HB379 would have prohibited Utah prosecutors from seeking capital punishment in cases filed after May 8.

The bill passed out of committee last week with a favorable vote, and had been waiting for a vote from the full House for much of this week. House Republicans discussed it in closed meetings, including Friday.

But bill sponsor Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, motioned Friday for HB379 to be sent to rules committee — essentially killing the bill.

Froerer believed the bill was short of votes, and the ensuing passionate debate would have taken up precious time remaining while lawmakers scramble to pass other bills or watch them die on Thursday at midnight.

“It obviously raised the level of discussion considerably about the death penalty,” Froerer said. “It’s good to have these types of policy discussions, even though they are uncomfortable for some people.”

The Huntsville lawmaker will not run for re-election, but said he hopes another legislator will bring a new effort to repeal the death penalty in the next year or two.

It’s the second time in recent years that a Republican lawmaker has unsuccessfully pushed for repeal of the death penalty. In 2016, Utah legislators came close to abolishing capital punishment, but the bill never reached the House floor before the midnight deadline on the last night of session.

It was not considered during last year’s session.

Froerer said there is some hesitation from his fellow lawmakers to vote in support of repealing the death penalty after hearing from family members of murder victims who feel the death penalty is the “only closure they have” for their loved ones’ death.

One legislative opponent was Rep. Lee Perry, who is also a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant.

“I’ve had a brother killed,” the Republican lawmaker from the town of Perry said. “That’s a slap in the face.”

Groups like American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, Libertas Institute and Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty had all voiced support of abolishing Utah’s death penalty.

Marina Lowe, legislative and police counsel for the ACLU of Utah, said Friday that though Froerer pulled his bill, it was “really exciting” to see the progress that they made this year.

She said House Speaker Greg Hughes’ vocal support of a death penalty repeal and Gov. Gary Herbert indicating that he would consider signing the bill if lawmakers passed it were all signs that “we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

“We see this as a long-term effort,” Lowe said.

Another bill, HB70, which would request further study into capital punishment is still being considered by lawmakers.

Legislative analysts in 2012 estimated that a death sentence and years of appeals cost $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence. Another more recent report estimated that Utah and its counties have spent almost $40 million to prosecute the 165 death-penalty-eligible cases that have been filed in the past two decades. Only two cases in that time have resulted in a death sentence.

Tribune reporter Taylor Anderson contributed to this story.