National group joins Wyoming death penalty repeal effort

CASPER — Led by Cheyenne Republican Rep. Jared Olsen, state legislators took a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty further than it’s ever gotten in the 2019 legislative session, with almost no ground support and a lobbying effort that only began at the session’s start. 

Though those efforts failed before the finish line, the attempt seen this past winter has attracted the attention of a national group, which will be looking toward 2020 with an aim of making Wyoming the 22nd state to repeal the death penalty. 

Last week, Brooklyn-based non-profit Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty announced it would be hiring a Wyoming field director to aid in grassroots efforts to repeal the state’s rarely used death penalty, which according to state estimates costs Wyoming more than $1 million per year. 

The organization joins a growing effort to repeal the death penalty in Wyoming. In April, Olsen — along with the Wyoming office of the American Civil Liberties Union — announced the start of a repeal campaign targeting the entire state, with the goal of building up enough momentum and support for a measure to introduce a repeal bill in the 2020 session. 

“Wyoming took us by surprise last year,” said Hannah Cox, a national manager for the organization. “It was certainly exciting to see such a red state get momentum on the issue and come close to passing it. For us having done this in so many states, to see a state come that close to success with almost no conservative groundwork done to lay that foundation beforehand was super impressive, and that was one reason we want to make sure we have the people on the ground who are needed to make that fi nal push and get the Republicans on board with it.” 

The organization — which entered the national scene at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. — was formed in Montana by anti-abortion conservatives, who were bothered by the GOP’s inconsistent stances on issues like abortion versus the death penalty. 

Since then, a similar attitude has taken hold in red states around the country as more and more Republican lawmakers come around to the moral — and fiscal — arguments in favor of repealing the death penalty. Last year, 11 states had Republican-sponsored death penalty repeal bills, and in the two years prior Republicans constituted around a third of all sponsors of death penalty repeal bills in state legislatures around the country, according to a CCADP study. 

The reasons for the shift by conservatives, Cox said, are numerous. While a common fiscal argument for conservatives has been to solve the cost concerns by shortening the appeal process, that option increases the risk of executing innocent people and ignores that the majority of the costs associated with death penalty cases — roughly 70 percent — are incurred at the trial level, Cox said. 

There is also the moral concern, as well as the question of whether conservatives believe that the bureaucracy is best equipped to take on the responsibility of deciding who lives and dies. 

“I think the people supporting that are pro-life, and want to be consistent in that, but we’re also starting to recognize that this is simply a failed big government program that has failed in all ways these programs fail,” Cox said. “We’ve seen the wasted opportunity costs and fiscal costs, the risk of killing innocent people; we’ve seen it’s not a deterrent and doesn’t make our communities safer, and there’s a lot of socioeconomic and racial bias in the system. For people who believe in limited government and fiscal responsibility, the death penalty just doesn’t add up.”

The organization hopes to hire a field director by this fall.