SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert signed one of the 2015 Utah Legislature’s most controversial bills on Monday to designate the firing squad as the state’s backup execution method.
HB11, which survived narrow votes in the House and Senate, would allow firing squad executions in the absence of lethal injection drugs. Herbert signed the bill despite a 6,200-signature petition that anti-death penalty groups delivered to the governor’s office last week.
While only 500 Utahns signed the petition, the rest of the signatures came from around the world, according to Ralph Dellapiana of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The bill has drawn “disgraceful” national and international attention to Utah, Dellapiana has said.
“Those who voiced opposition to this bill are primarily arguing against capital punishment in general, and that decision has already been made in our state,” said Marty Carpenter, spokesman for Herbert. “We regret anyone ever commits the heinous crime of aggravated murder to merit the death penalty, and we prefer to use our primary method of lethal injection when such sentence is issued.
“However, when a jury makes the decision and a judge signs a death warrant, enforcing that lawful decision is the obligation of the executive branch,” Carpenter said.
Bill sponsor Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, has said Utah may need a backup execution method to lethal injections in wake of the nation’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.
Carpenter said 34 states use capital punishment, and all of those states use lethal injection as their primary execution methods. He said of the states that have chosen a secondary method, eight use electrocution, four use the gas chamber, three use hanging and two use the firing squad.
“It’s a matter of practicality and carrying out the law more so than it is changing what we’re looking at as far as being a capital punishment state,” Carpenter said.
However, when HB11 passed through a Senate committee earlier this month, Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, proposed a motion for legislative leadership to address Utah’s death penalty during the upcoming interim session.
The proposal passed 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 the motion passed in the wake of arguments from groups opposed to the death penalty that the Legislature’s time would be better spent reconsidering the state's death penalty.
“That’s the only way that we’ll ensure we won’t be back here over and over engaging in what is ultimately a doomed effort of deciding on a decent way for the government to kill people,” said Anna Brower, public policy advocate with American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.
“What the governor has said is that there’s always room for continued discussion,” Carpenter said. “That’s the way our system works. Once we set a law in place, it’s the law until it’s changed, but those laws are always subject to what the representatives of the people want to do.”
• Among the bills Herbert also signed Monday was HB79, making not wearing a seat belt a primary offense for adults over 19, through July 2018. Under the law, citations may only be issued after a first offense, and the $45 fine can be waived if an offender completes a 30-minute course.
During the three-year pilot program, the Utah Department of Transportation, along with law enforcement and community groups, must come up with a program to increase the use of seat belts.
• The governor also signed HB48, which makes the possession, sale or use of powdered alcohol by individuals or retailers illegal.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche