A bill that would expand Utah’s list of crimes eligible for the death penalty cleared an early hurdle at the Capitol on Monday as lawmakers moved it to the Senate floor despite fears that SB30 could actually imperil the state’s capital punishment law if challenged in court.
SB30 would enhance the penalty for killing private security officers and various first responders.
But it raised concern for one member of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee who said that while he supports the death penalty in Utah, a court challenge could torpedo the law for being too broad.
“I am concerned with loading that boat too full and sinking the boat,” Sen. Todd Weiler, the Woods Cross Republican who leads the committee, said before five other members voted to pass the bill.
Weiler, an attorney, said he’d heard concerns from civil-rights groups that Utah may have too many crimes that qualify for the death penalty.
Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said the U.S. Supreme Court halted executions in the past for laws giving prosecutors too much discretion over whether someone faces death penalty charges. The state has over 60 aggravating factors that could lead to a death sentence.
“Organizations like my own don’t think it’s appropriate we’re allowing [the death penalty] for more and more crimes each year,” Lowe said.
Sen. Karen Mayne, a Democrat from West Valley City and sponsor of SB30, said she couldn’t assure Weiler that passing the bill wouldn’t tip the scale and put Utah’s death penalty in jeopardy with the courts.
“I can’t give you assurance that tomorrow the sun is going to come up,” Mayne said. “We can lawyer this all day long. And every lawyer and prosecutor has different opinions. They’re paid from different circumstances to have those opinions. And I respect that.”
Two Democrats joined three Republicans in voting to move the bill to the Senate floor for further consideration.