Group wants to end the death penalty in Wyoming

CHEYENNE — Hoping to put an end to the death penalty, an advocacy group with chapters in 11 other states has set its sights on Wyoming.

Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty announced its formation in the state Thursday, with the goal of getting a bill banning the death penalty through the Wyoming Legislature in the upcoming session.

The same bill being proposed by Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, failed by a handful of votes in the Senate last year, but advocates are hopeful this session will be different.

“It’s really not a political party issue,” Olsen said at a news conference Thursday. “It’s a people issue. It’s a moral issue. To me, it’s a fiscal issue. To me, it’s a limited government issue.”

In addition to Conservatives Against the Death Penalty, groups like the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union also have voiced support for the bill.

Kylie Taylor, the group’s Wyoming coordinator, said the diversity of support for this effort shows how important the issue is. Taylor cited the Death Penalty Information Center, saying more than 165 inmates on death row have been exonerated and released since 1973.

“About 1 out of 10 on death row are later exonerated, which is huge,” Taylor said. “One mistake with a life is one too many.”

The last time someone was executed in the state was 1992, but according to Olsen, the state budgets about $1 million each year for the capital defense fund. Because each person in the U.S. is entitled to effective representation, those who are facing the death penalty need an attorney certified to handle these types of cases, which comes with a steep price tag.

Currently, Wyoming legislators are grappling with how to deal with the loss of state funding from the state’s shrinking coal industry. Olsen said coal is going away and taking money that used to go to the state with it.

“The result of that is extreme budgetary restraints in Wyoming, yet we spend over $1 million a year to maintain the death penalty system,” Olsen said.

According to Olsen, most cases that use capital defense attorneys don’t end with someone on death row. Instead, the death penalty is widely used as a “tool to negotiate a plea.” Olsen questioned the morality and legality of that process, and cited it as a reason to abolish capital punishment.

Another reason Olsen brought forward the bill in the first place is the morality of the death penalty itself.

“If we’re taking a person’s life because we believe that it was unjust for that person to take another’s life, then that seems paradoxical,” Olsen said. “We ought to be consistent with our morals and our principles. Life is either precious or it’s not.”

Deacon Mike Leman with the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne also spoke in support of the group at the news conference, echoing Olsen’s sentiment and saying that all life was sacred “from the womb to the tomb.”

And while Leman said society has the right to protect itself from dangerous offenders, innovations in the prison and criminal justice systems have made the death penalty cruel and unnecessary.

“Capital punishment is no longer an unfortunate necessity,” Leman said.

The Legislature will vote on the bill during the 2020 session, and Olsen said he believes they will have enough support to get it passed this time around. Instead of capital punishment, the maximum penalty for crimes would become life in prison without the possibility of parole.