SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert received roughly 6,200 signatures Tuesday from people urging him to veto the bill that would reinstate Utah’s firing squad as a backup execution method.
Yet only about 500 of those signatures are from Utahns.
Ralph Dellapiana of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty hand delivered the thick stack of signatures to Herbert’s office with a letter calling for not only a veto of HB11, but also for the Legislature to reconsider the state’s death penalty overall.
“It’s disgraceful, frankly, that we here in Utah are talking about the best ways to kill people. There’s no humane way to kill people,” Dellapiana said. “The alternative that we should be talking about is an alternative without the death penalty at all.”
HB11 would legalize firing squad executions in Utah if drugs needed for lethal injections aren’t available 30 days before the date of the death warrant, which would add to current law that allows the firing squad if lethal injection executions ever become unconstitutional.
Bill sponsor Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said Utah may require a backup method to lethal injections in wake of the country’s inability to access the lethal injection drugs because European pharmaceutical companies that sell the drugs oppose the death penalty and refuse to sell to U.S. prisons.
He said the lack of previously used drugs has resulted in recent botched executions that have led to a U.S. Supreme Court case, which could cause lethal injections to become unconstitutional. Ray said Utah potentially faces the same costly litigation risks if the state continues to carry out lethal injections, which is why Utah needs a backup method.
But anti-death penalty groups spoke against the bill throughout the session, saying the Legislature should be spending its time having serious discussions about the moral issue of the death penalty itself.
Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, had previously proposed to address Utah’s death penalty during the upcoming interim session. The proposal passed a Senate committee earlier this month with one dissenting vote from Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who said the motion would just “clog up” the system with another “misfit bill” that no lawmaker wants to address.
But Dellapiano said he has received calls from people all over the world expressing outrage about the state’s potential reinstatement of the firing squad.
“Their first question is, ‘Do you really still have the death penalty?’” Dellapiano said. “Never mind that we’re talking about different methods of execution, but it’s bringing quite a lot of worldwide attention in Utah. It gives us a good reason to reconsider what we’re doing.”
Dellapiana said “there’s no hurry in Utah” to reinstate a backup execution method, since it will be at least three to four years before the state would hold another execution, and “it’s just a matter of time” for Utah to have to re-evaluate its capital punishment.
Anti-capital punishment groups have been collecting signatures for the petition since the House and Senate passed HB11 last week. Roughly 500 Utahns signed the petition, while the rest came from across the U.S. and the world, Dellapiano said.
Ray said he believes people who have signed the petition simply oppose the death penalty itself, and are not considering Utah’s need for a backup method in the meantime.
He also said most of the emails he’s received expressing opposition to the bill have been from the East and West coasts and from out of the U.S., and he’s experienced vast support from Utahns. He said with 2.9 million people living in Utah, the petition’s number does not reflect the wishes of the state.
“What I hope the governor sees is there’s a lot more people out there that support the firing squad or the death penalty in general,” Ray said. “There’s a very large group of supporters out there for this bill. You only ever hear from people who oppose a piece of legislation.”
He said the death penalty is a part of the state’s justice system, and “until Utah appeals it, we have to have this.”
Randy Gardner, brother of Ronnie Lee Gardner — the last person who was executed by firing squad in Utah — testified against the bill during the legislative session and said he felt as though lawmakers had “already made their minds” to pass the bill.
“I just hope Gov. Herbert does the right thing and puts an end to all this,” Gardner said. “If he looks at what the world and the country is saying about this firing squad, it’s cruel and unusual punishment.”
Herbert has 20 days to sign or veto HB11. He has not indicated if he will reject or approve it.
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