If you don’t think the times are a-changin’, to quote reluctant Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan, consider that Utah’s speaker of the House, Greg Hughes, a self-described “staunch conservative,” wants to end the death penalty in the state.
That is, he wants to end it in the state that famously led the charge to bring it back in the United States in 1977 by executing Gary Gilmore.
Politics may go in cycles, but if this succeeds it would rival any up-and-down Lagoon could offer.
On Tuesday, Hughes announced his support for HB379, a bill sponsored by Rep. Gage Froerer,
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R-Huntsville, that would end capital punishment in Utah for all but the nine people currently on death row.
The bill narrowly made it out of a House committee Wednesday morning, 7-4, after a fairly predictable hearing.
It featured a woman whose sister was murdered and who described capital punishment, with its lengthy appeals, as something that “causes more harm than good to those of us left behind” as it keeps families from moving on.
It also featured a man who described the killers of his grandmother and aunt as “monsters” who don’t deserve to live.
Others spoke about how awful murderers are, that a life sentence does not keep people from appealing endlessly and that supporters of the bill seemed to be treating killers with more compassion than their victims.
All of which completely misses the point of this new conservative anti-death-penalty wave, which is showing up in many states.
The new concerns are philosophical and in line with the sort of thinking that got Donald Trump elected. Simply put, the question isn’t so much whether murderers deserve to die, it is whether we trust government to arrest and convict the right people, and whether a corrupt government that screws up a lot of things should have the power to kill people.
Or, to quote the Boston Globe in a story four years ago about this movement, the argument has become, “People who share a deep worry about government overreach, who believe in the sanctity of life, and who place great importance on fiscal responsibility should not support a policy that empowers the state to spend large sums of money killing people.”
Froerer, the bill’s sponsor and a strong opponent of abortion, said, “I don’t think it’s the government’s right to take life. Let’s be pro-life from first born to the existing people that we have in our society. You’re either pro-life, in my opinion, or you’re not.”
Both he and Hughes said they are recent converts to this sort of thinking.
Two questions now hang in the air. The first is whether Wednesday’s narrow committee victory can translate into wins in the full House and Senate and the governor’s office. The second is whether regular Utahns would go along.
The two questions are not unrelated, and they’re not easily answered.
A Dan Jones & Associates poll commissioned by Utahpolicy.com in 2016 found 52 percent of Utah adults favoring the death penalty. If that seems low, it is not out of line with the rest of the nation. Few things seem to teeter and totter more through the years than how Americans feel about state-sanctioned executions.
When Utah executed Gilmore, a Gallup poll found support for capital punishment in the mid-60th percentile nationwide, up significantly from just 49 percent in 1971. Gallup recorded 68 percent support for it in 1953, 42 percent in 1966, and 80 percent in tough-on-crime 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress. In 2017, it found only 55 percent support, the lowest level since 1972.
Perhaps the conservative arguments are subtle proof that the extremes of conservative and liberal thought, taken to their logical conclusions, eventually circle around to meet each other near the same place. Or perhaps they are a momentary flash that will fade when the cycle swings the other way again.
Hughes is a powerful force in the House, but he has announced he won’t seek re-election. Even though people speculate he may run for governor, his departure lends some urgency to this issue. If it doesn’t pass this year, it may not find as powerful a champion again for a long time.