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Utah legislator abandons push to end death penalty, but attempt is telling

The fact that such a push came from a Republican senator is emblematic of the shifting views of the death penalty, given the party's historic staunch support of the practice.

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    Randy Gardner, of Salt Lake City, the older brother of Ronnie Lee Gardner, the last inmate to be killed by firing squad in Utah in 2010, disrupts the House of Representatives Thursday, in Salt Lake City. Mr. Gardner, who opposes capital punishment, unfurled a banner with autopsy images of his younger brother while yelling ‘Nobody has the right to do that to somebody. I don't care who he is and what he did.’ Utah lawmakers this year took up sweeping proposals to abolish the death penalty, significantly restrict abortions and set up a system to grow and distribute marijuana products for medical use.
    Rick Bowmer/AP
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State Sen. Steve Urquhart (R) abandoned his quest to end the death penalty in Utah Thursday night, after his cause failed to garner enough votes to pass.

Despite his decision on Thursday, Senator Urquhart was nearly able persuade a majority of the 75 member House of Representatives to abolish the death penalty, despite a vote just one year ago that brought back the use of firing squads when lethal injection drugs are unavailable.

It has become increasingly difficult for death penalty states to obtain execution drugs, after European drug suppliers began refusing to distribute medications for the express purpose of killing someone. States attempts to cobble together new cocktails have resulted in a series of botched executions that have prompted many observers who traditionally have supported the sentence to reconsider their stances.

A steady rise in exonerations have further prompted others, such as Evangelical Christians, to take an increasingly more nuanced view of the sentence. The fact that such a push came from a Republican senator is emblematic of the shifting views of the death penalty, given the party's historic staunch support of the practice.

Urquhart said that he had overcome several obstacles in his attempts to convince the state legislature to change the law, but the last insurmountable one was time, as he failed to gain enough supporters by a midnight deadline.

"I can't say that the bill is totally a victim of the clock,” Urquhart told the Associated Press, “but you know, if we had another week or so, it would be interesting to see what would have happened."

The last man executed in Utah, Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was put to death by firing squad in 2010. He had killed two people and wounded another prior to his execution.

Ronnie’s brother, Randy Gardner, was watching from the gallery when Urquhart surrendered his cause. Mr. Gardner opposes the death penalty, and expressed dismay with Urquhart’s decision.

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Gardner shouted, "Nobody has the right to do that [impose the death penalty] to somebody. I don't care who he is and what he did." Gardner was taken out in handcuffs.

Currently, 31 states have the highly controversial death penalty, though several of those states, like Utah, have considered adopting measures to abolish it in recent years. Nationally, 28 inmates were executed in 2015, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Utah is the only state that uses the firing squad to conduct executions under any circumstance, and has used that measure to execute three inmates since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Even if Urquhart, a Republican himself, had been able to persuade Utah’s deep red legislature to vote for his measure, the Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, would also have had to approve.

Governor Herbert, who supports the death penalty under certain conditions, told AP that he was not sure how he would have voted on the measure.

"I'm pro-death penalty, but with the parameters that it's done on very rare occasions for the most heinous of crimes," Herbert said. "And that's how Utah has utilized it over the last 40 years. We've only had seven executions in 40 years. This is not Texas." (Texas carried out 13 of the nation's total 28 executions last year.)

Herbert expressed concern regarding the resources it takes for inmates to appeal death sentences under the current system.

Urquhart’s early success was due to his appeal to concerns like Herbert’s. He told fellow lawmakers that the death penalty was costly, and gave politicians unwarranted control over life and death.

Critics say that abolishing the death penalty could hurt prosecutors who used the possibility of life without parole as a plea deal and that execution is a fair punishment for certain crimes.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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