SALT LAKE CITY — The brother of executed killer Ronnie Lee Gardner was detained by police Thursday night after storming into the House gallery to protest lawmakers' lack of action on a proposal to repeal the death penalty.
Randy Gardner was shouting at legislators and displaying large photos of his brother's autopsy before being detained by the Utah Highway Patrol about 8:45 p.m. Ronnie Lee Gardner was the most recent inmate to be executed in Utah. He died by firing squad on June 18, 2010.
SB189 passed the Senate earlier this month but stalled in the House.
Early Thursday afternoon Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, gathered families of victims of death row inmates who had come to the Capitol to speak against SB189 and told them the bill had been pulled. House leadership, Ray said, had assured him it would not be heard in the final hours of the 2016 legislative session.
Nathan Coats, husband of Linae Tiede Coats, a kidnapping victim and eyewitness in the murder of her mother and her grandmother by current death row inmate Von Lester Taylor, teared up as he heard the news.
Coats said death penalty repeal is a decision that needs to be deliberate and unhurried, not just in the last few days of an already short, 45-day legislative session.
SB189's sponsor, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said Thursday the bill was "still alive." The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said he did not know if it would be heard by the end of the day, but as far as he knew, SB189 had not been pulled.
Ray said Urquhart had pulled the bill. When told Urquhart said he didn't, Ray said, "Maybe he didn't pull the bill, but it ain't coming up on the board."
Ray said he had the votes needed to defeat the bill rather than substitute it with legislation that would add new capital crimes.
The Clearfield Republican also drafted a substitute bill that would not abolish the death penalty but would expand the list of capital offenses to include homicides as a result of human trafficking, human trafficking of a child, and aggravated human trafficking.
Asked if the sponsor had pulled Urquhart's bill, House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said, "Yes. You really ought to talk to Sen. Urquhart about that. He just said the House won't hear the bill. He said we don't need to take time in our caucus, we don't need to hear the bill on the floor. So we'll honor that request."
The death penalty issue was on the printed agenda for Thursday's House GOP caucus, but members were told it would not be discussed.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the state needs to get rid of capital punishment or find a way to reduce the time and money spent on appeals.
"The way we're using the death penalty here in Utah, it doesn't make sense to even have it," he said, adding he doesn't believe it's a deterrent. "It doesn't help the victims in their healing to have it stretched out for 20 years or even longer."
Niederhauser said even though the Senate passed Urquhart’s bill, there’s more discussion to be had on the issue.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he was disappointed the death penalty bill did not advance. Hughes said earlier this session he has "quietly" been an opponent of the death penalty for some time because "giving your government the power to execute its citizenry is more than I'm comfortable with."
Hughes said Thursday that believes a vote on the bill in the House would have been close.
"I think that's a tough vote. That's an emotional one. It's inherently a difficult bill to pass," the speaker said, especially on the final day of the session. "It was not a slam-dunk defeat. But it wasn't necessarily a slam-dunk victory. It was close."
Hughes said he saw the bill as an opportunity to have a thorough discussion on the death penalty.
"I think this was lightning in a bottle in some ways," he said. "That's why I am disappointed."
Gov. Gary Herbert said he is pro-death penalty and believes the majority of Utahns are, too, despite concerns about the process.
"We've always taken the position in Utah that it should be done rarely, only for the most heinous of crimes, and that's how it's been implemented here," Herbert said.
Herbert said he was made aware of the protest in the House gallery.
"It's a tough issue and it's emotional. Again, I heard (the protester said), 'He murdered my brother.' He obviously doesn't know the definition of murder. That's too bad," the governor said.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche, Dennis Romboy