‘Its days are numbered’: Conservative group seeks to end death penalty in states, including Utah

FILE - This June 18, 2010, file photo shows the firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. Ten years after banning the use of firing squads in state executions, Utah lawmakers on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014, endorsed a proposal to resurrect the practice in order to head off problems with the lethal injection drugs. (AP Photo/Trent Nelson, Pool, File)

Washington • A group of conservative state lawmakers says momentum is building to kill the death penalty, noting an increase in the number of Republican leaders sponsoring legislation to abolish executions in their states, adding to the Democrats who have been at the forefront of this issue for years.

Last year, Republican state lawmakers led a third of legislative attempts to end the death penalty, the highest percentage yet and a far cry from the single-digit number of GOP leaders supporting such a move before 2012, according to a study released Wednesday by the group Concerned Conservatives About the Death Penalty.

For some Republicans, the opposition to executions is coming from their “pro-life” beliefs while others call it a conservative, fiscal issue.

Government needs to be accountable for the money it spends. Fiscal responsibility calls for the end of the death penalty,” said former Utah state Sen. Steve Urquhart, a Republican who sponsored a bill in 2016 to end state-authorized executions. “Money spent on the death penalty is foolish, producing the exact opposite of what is intended. Compared to life imprisonment, money spent on the death penalty turns murderers into celebrities, it denies closure to family victims, and it mocks basic deterrent concepts of our criminal laws.”

Urquhart joined a group of GOP state officials at the National Press Club on Wednesday to discuss the report, which showed a sharp increase in Republican-led efforts to abolish the death penalty from the turn of the 21st century and that GOP sponsorship of bills to jettison executions was strongest in red states.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, chief sponsor of SB 107, which deals with Hate Crimes Amendments, talks about his bill in the Senate Chambers at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, Friday, February 26, 2016. The bill passed the 2nd reading on a 17-12 vote.

Democrats make up the majority of bill sponsors to end the death penalty but Concerned Conservatives About the Death Penalty, founded in 2013, says more Republicans are coming on board.

Life imprisonment saves taxpayer money, provides swift and final justice and condemns murderers to ignominious demise outside the public’s gaze and attention,” said Urquhart, whose bill in the 2016 legislative session passed the Senate but failed to get a vote in the House. Urquhart and a group of Utah activists say they’ll revive the issue during the upcoming session that begins in January, though they couldn’t yet name its sponsor.

Montana GOP state Rep. Adam Rosendale said conservative beliefs line up with tossing out state-sanctioned executions because Republicans want a smaller government that delivers services for taxpayers in the most efficient way.

We expect things out of our government,” Rosendale said Wednesday. “With the death penalty, there’s really not a return. The next step of taking their lives, there’s nothing to gain from that other than a corpse.”

Former Nebraska state Sen. Colby Coash noted the number of condemned murderers whose convictions have been overturned because of new evidence or technology since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself and allowed the death penalty in 1973. Coash says the government isn’t perfect and you can’t take back an execution.

We know they get it wrong, and 157 people almost lost their lives because the government got it wrong,” Coash said. “It’s because we are conservative that we can stand here today and say it’s not working for us.”

Marc Hyden, a coordinator with the Concerned Conservatives About the Death Penalty, says more conservatives coming on board will hasten the efforts to stop capital punishment.

Its days are numbered,” he said.