Jared Olsen

Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, speaks during a press conference announcing the formation of the Wyoming Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, inside the Laramie County Library in downtown Cheyenne.

CHEYENNE – A bill to repeal the death penalty in Wyoming failed a vote to be introduced Wednesday afternoon in the Wyoming House of Representatives.

House Bill 166, which had gained the support of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, fell just three votes short of the 40 it needed to be introduced in the Legislature. Non-budget bills require a two-thirds vote of support to be introduced during a budget session.

In total, 21 states have abolished the death penalty, while governors in four other states have placed moratoriums on the practice.

On the House floor, Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, who has been outspoken in favor of repeal, asked his fellow lawmakers to at least advance the bill to a committee so that testimony could be heard.

"What I'm asking you to do is send it to a committee ... so that the voices of families, victims, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, clergy, the wrongfully convicted, the exonerees and, of course, the people of Wyoming can come inside our majestic halls and talk about this issue," Olsen said.

Yet others argued repeal of the death penalty could lead to the loosening of other criminal laws in the future.

"I got an email earlier this year where I had a group that was wanting me to sponsor legislation to repeal life imprisonment," Rep. Roy Edwards, R-Gillette, said before the vote. "I see that coming, and I don't want to start it by repealing the death penalty."

Another Gillette lawmaker argued the death penalty can act as leverage to keep incarcerated individuals from committing additional crimes while in prison.

"(Without the death penalty), there's no recourse to come back at them if they commit another murder or such a heinous crime inside a facility," Republican Rep. Bill Pownall said. "It's a known fact that this happens, and ... we don't want it to happen in Wyoming."

Pownall, a former Campbell County sheriff, also said prosecutors don't support repeal, arguing the death penalty can act as a bargaining chip in ongoing criminal cases.

The immediate rejection of the repeal bill comes after weeks of public advocacy in favor of the legislation. Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty, a group with chapters in 11 others states, had recently announced its Wyoming chapter and held events encouraging repeal.

Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, who, along with Olsen, has been one of the main proponents of repeal, said in an interview after the vote that he knew it would be tough to get the bill introduced.

"With a difficult bill like this, there's always going to be those who are more influenced by emotion than by the facts, so I wasn't necessarily surprised," Boner said.

While Wyoming hasn't executed someone since 1992, Boner said the state has unsuccessfully attempted to execute prisoners 14 times in its history.

"It's inefficient as a deterrent, and it's a massive waste of public funds," he added.

While other states have left the issue up to voters, Boner said he wasn't aware of any citizen-led drives in Wyoming to get the issue on the ballot in November, noting the high bar it takes to do so.

During the 2019 session, another repeal bill narrowly failed in the Senate after gaining approval in the House. In a statement sent after the vote, the ACLU of Wyoming said it would be fully committed to passing a death penalty repeal during next year's general session.

“The death penalty is costly and ineffective, and it is disingenuous to keep it part of our criminal justice system," Sabrina King, director of campaigns for the ACLU of Wyoming, said in a statement. "It is clear that a majority of the House supports repeal; we know by next year the Senate willl as well."

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