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Wyoming Debates The Future Of The Death Penalty

Recently a legislative committee gave its support to a bill that would have Wyoming use firing squads for the death penalty as opposed to lethal injection. For a variety of reasons, States are finding it difficult acquire the drugs that have traditionally been used to put people to death. Some states have tried to replace the drugs and it has led to some botched executions. One issue that could come before the legislature this year is whether the state should get rid of the death penalty all together.

The reason the firing squad bill has moved forward is that Wyoming has a death penalty and without the chemicals needed for lethal injection, the state needs to find a way to move forward with executions. House Judiciary Chairman Keith Gingery has worked for years to make many laws tougher and his efforts have landed more people in prison. But during a Judiciary Committee meeting he made his views on the death penalty know.

“I do not wish for the government to commit homicide on my behalf.”

Gingery called the death penalty nothing more than revenge. But Baggs Senator Larry Hicks quickly fired back and said it was not revenge, but justice. 

“This is justice for those victims who were either brutally murdered, raped, tortured, imprisoned, this is not revenge. “ 

When the committee voted, House members strongly supported legislation doing away with the death penalty, while Senators opposed the bill, and it failed. Sheridan Senator Bruce Burns is the main proponent of the firing squad bill and a fan of the death penalty. 

“Probably the majority of my constituents are still very much in favor of the death penalty and it makes it a relatively easy vote for me. But I think it should be held in reserve for those particularly brutal and heinous crimes that deserve it. “

Burns points out that Wyoming juries almost never approve a death penalty and most get life without parole. Burns is correct, Wyoming’s last execution was Mark Hopkinson in 1992

Currently Dale Wayne Eaton is the only person on death row.

"I think the firing squad would be a train wreck. I mean what if they miss? Look at how embarrassed some of these other states are by their botched executions. I mean we are supposed to be going forward, we aren't supposed to be going back to the 19th century."

He was prosecuted by Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen who says it’s a tool that prosecutors must have. But Blonigen also sees problems with the death penalty. He said Eaton has undergone years of appeals, and that’s part of what is wrong.

“You can’t just have the sentence, you need to have the penalty. And that means some reasonable possibility that, you know in a relative reasonable amount of time that a man is actually going to be executed if he is sentenced to death.”

Blonigen said more people would be on death row, but the high cost of prosecuting such cases, countless appeals, judicial rules, and surprising Supreme Court rulings limit these cases. For instance, Blonigen said poorer counties could almost go broke prosecuting a capital case. He says in the Eaton case the Public Defender got to spend a lot more than he did. 

“You certainly want a guy to get a fair trial, but you know he doesn’t deserve to get a Cadillac and gold rimmed trial. Due process yes, but are we just funding these little communities of experts in this area. “

Blonigen says if Wyoming keeps the death penalty, the legislature needs reforms it to make it less difficult to get juries to approve death sentences and to make sure funds are equitable. He also wants some other reforms to make it more difficult to get cases overturned. 

Defense Attorney Vaughn Neubauer has a different view. He says fast tracking the process would be a terrible idea. Neubauer has handled several murder cases and was Eaton’s attorney. 

He has a number of problems with the death penalty, not the least of which is the fact that he accuses prosecutors of using it as a bargaining chip. 

“I think what it does is give an inordinate amount of power to a county attorney. It basically allows him to wave a loaded gun around and threaten people with things they shouldn’t be threatening with.”

Blonigen says he agrees that approach is wrong, but Neubauer says it still happens. He says the legislature’s interest in the firing squad is makes his opposition even stronger.

“I think the firing squad would be a train wreck. I mean what if they miss? Look at how embarrassed some of these other states are by their botched executions. I mean we are supposed to be going forward, we aren’t supposed to be going back to the 19th century.”

Blonigen and Neubauer do agree on one thing. The death penalty does not deter crime.  Studies also show something else. During the Hopkinson execution opponents argued that it would have been cheaper for the state to keep Hopkinson in prison as opposed to the price the state paid to execute him. Steve Lindly of the Department of Corrections says when you factor in the cost the state bears in the appeals process, that’s still the case.

“It’s generally, I think fairly well documented, that the appellate process is more costly than housing a person for a life sentence, by a substantial degree.”

Although the committee defeated the bill that would abolish the death penalty, individual lawmakers say they will draft similar legislation to be ready when the legislature meets in January. 

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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