“Riveting.” It’s not a word I’ve ever used before in connection with the Wyoming Legislature, and I’ve covered about 20 sessions over the past four decades.
But it’s the best descriptor I can think of for the debate in the House over the proposed repeal of the state’s death penalty. It was an emotional, thoughtful and somber discussion of a topic I never thought would make it to the floor, much less pass the House 36-21.
I’ve covered capital murder cases and read a ton of books about serial killers and other heinous criminals, but my basic belief on the matter hasn’t wavered: The death penalty is wrong, for many reasons.
The state should not have the right to take a person’s life. Most of the world agrees with me; 142 nations have abolished the death penalty either in statute or practice, while the 56 that still have capital punishment — China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan etc. — aren’t exactly the beacons of civic virtue we should hope to emulate.
The ultimate penalty is applied unevenly in America, with a highly disproportionate number of minorities on death row. Far too many people have been executed in this country who were later found to be innocent, and hundreds of the convicted killers have languished on death row for an average of 17 years.
The huge fiscal impact of the appeals process drains states’ budgets as taxpayers must cover the costs incurred by both the state and defense for convicted murderers who cannot afford attorneys.
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t wrestled with the thought, deep inside, that some crimes are so horrific that a justly convicted killer doesn’t deserve to live.
So I listened intently as Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, who sponsored the death penalty repeal bill, explained his reasoning. Olsen said he was asked how he would feel if the murder victim was a member of his family.
“My gut actually said, ‘Yeah, I would want that person put to death,” Olsen said. “But you know what? That’s what’s wrong with the system. My gut is wrong. It’s not based on reason.
“Ask yourself if it’s reason, or it’s blind [justice], or if it’s nothing but fear and anger,” he said.
My anti-death penalty convictions might also be erased in seconds if a member of my family was the victim. But Olsen has it right. It’s not the state’s responsibility to seek revenge for crimes. It must punish the guilty, but not solely for the sake of retribution.
Olsen asked, “How much authority do we want to rest in our government?” He noted that since 1973, 150 former death row inmates have been exonerated in the U.S.
The last person the state of Wyoming executed was Mark Hopkinson in 1992. I covered the small protest at the Capitol when he was put to death at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins. It was a frigid night, and I remember looking at the light in then-Gov. Mike Sullivan’s office window and hoping he would stop the damn thing from happening.
Hopkinson was convicted of ordering the murders of Evanston attorney Vincent Vehar, his wife Beverly and son John, and was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. He was sentenced to death for ordering the murder of Jeffrey Green while Hopkinson was in prison for hiring Green to kill an Arizona attorney in an unsuccessful bombing plot.
I don’t doubt his guilt in any of the four murders, but I could not see the point of the state taking his life, and I still don’t. Nothing would bring the Vehars or Green back.
Knowing that one is going to spend the rest of his or her life locked up without any hope of ever getting out would be a living hell on earth
Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, is a retired police officer. You could have heard a pin drop as he recalled telling three young children that their mother had been killed and their father was probably going to prison, perhaps forever.
Yet Washut favors taking capital punishment off the books. “I’ve thought about it long and hard and I think conservatives can get behind this abolition of the death penalty in good conscience,” he said.
The testimony of Rep. Andrea Clifford, D-Riverton, was heart-wrenching. Her 18-year-old aunt was raped and murdered.
“I was raised with my cultural beliefs that we shouldn’t live with anger and being bitter,” Clifford, who is Native American said. “It’s not good for humans and not good for the family. It’s not good for the tribe. … It’s for the Creator to decide. We’re not here to judge anyone. We’re humans; we make mistakes.”
Olsen delivered the perfect closer to his argument: “If you keep the death penalty, Wyoming will use it. No one can guarantee an innocent person will not be sent to death.”
Wyoming should thank Olsen for bringing this debate to the forefront of state politics and the attention of the public. When our officials have the courage of their convictions and aren’t afraid to do what they believe is right, we all benefit.
Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Casper and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.