LARAMIE — As the state faces major expenditure cuts, abolishing capital punishment has resurfaced as a feasible means to cut costs.
On average, approximately $1 million taxpayer dollars is retained for capital defense.
Lauren McLane — assistant professor of law and Director of the Defender Aid Clinic at the University of Wyoming — broke down distribution, stating the funds ensure that death penalty qualified state attorneys and a death-qualified jury panel are utilized during trials.
Additionally, capital crime trials can last up to four times longer than non-capital trials and tend to require solitary confinement in special prison facilities with increased security.
Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCATDP) states on its website the death penalty is consistently more expensive than life in prison because of the necessary and contingent preparations for sentencing phases and post-conviction appeals.
In a Zoom interview Friday, McLane said life without parole is the only other comparable punishment and would cost $500-700 thousand dollars less, stating, “It’s cheaper to keep somebody alive in prison for the rest of their lives.”
“We still spend the money …which is why Governor Gordon has been talking about the moratorium,” she said, adding, “We can’t afford it with the … deficit, and this is something that we can get rid of.”
Gordon was quoted in a Death Penalty Information Center article in 2020 that capital punishment is a luxury the state can no longer afford.
According to House Bill 0166 fiscal note — which failed introduction in February 2020 — state defense was appropriated $500,000 for the biennium for capital cases and $1.1 million for capital resentencing.
If the penalty were eliminated, it is estimated approximately $750,000 in expenditures related to capital cases would decrease, resulting in $110,000 in reduced revenue from contributing counties.
CCATDP also considers capital punishment an ineffective government program and referenced Dale Wayne Eaton — who was convicted for the rape and murder of 18-year-old Lisa Kimmell in 1988. Eaton was convicted in 2003 and placed on death row a year later.
There were three cases at the state level, according to the Wyoming Judicial Branch, before going to a federal court where a judge overturned Eaton’s death penalty sentence November 2014. On May 18, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Eaton’s appeal and the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the case back to state federal district court, where Eaton’s death sentence was declined. The state is still grappling with a proper sentence and in 2019 local prosecutors sought the death penalty again.
Following a mental evaluation determining if he is of right mind to receive the death penalty, he will undergo a second sentencing hearing.
There are other cases similar to Eaton’s; out of the 14 death penalty cases that have been presented to Wyoming prosecutors since 2006, only five have gone to trial — none ended with a death sentence.
Eight ended with plea deals and charges were dropped in the last case after $170,270 was spent on defense.
It should be noted the last state execution was by lethal injection nearly 30 years ago on Mark Hopkinson for ordering the murder of four people. Currently, there is no one on death row.
McLane provided her opinion on Eaton and said prosecutors need to remember they don’t just represent the victim’s family, but Wyoming as a whole.
“It’s on the prosecutor to step up and say: ‘You know what, my state is in a billion dollar deficit, and yes, I morally think it’s correct to seek the death penalty in this case, and yes, I feel for the victims, but I’m going to say ‘no’ this time for the community,” said McLane.
CCATDP sees the middle ground and speaks against the death penalty predominantly from the fiscal standpoint, but its growing concern isn’t forged only in monetary rationalization: it’s rooted in moral obligation.
Kylie Taylor, Wyoming state coordinator for CCATDP, said during a phone interview she views the death penalty as a government overreach.
“I believe in valuing life across the board,” she said, adding everyone, including convicted felons, have the right to a natural death.
This could be a controversial statement to those seeking capital punishment because a victim of murder is denied this right.
Outside of costs, Taylor said CCATDP’s campaign aims to educate the community about the deep-rooted, discriminatory injustices associated with the death but said there are unavoidable challenges that tend to cause division.
“[It’s] not a topic of conversation in Wyoming,” Taylor said.
When asked why repeal has received pushback in the past, McLane said politicians seem to benefit from divisive rhetoric surrounding the topic, adding, “The extreme positions disallow us to see middle ground.”
Albany County Republican Sen. Dan Furphy in a phone call Wednesday responded to this comment, “What middle ground; either we abolish (death penalty) or we don’t.”
Furphy said he isn’t for the complete abolition of capital punishment, stating, “I think … it’s a negotiation tactic for the appropriate authorities.”
He added the financial risk of capital defense should be considered by the judge and jury who should only utilize the penalty in rare cases.
Furphy said although he personally isn’t for the penalty, he can understand the logic of retaining it.
After a 2019 bi-partisan bill abolishing the death penalty was rejected following “overwhelming” support in the House, a diverse group of individuals across the state put together a coalition. It is the coalition’s belief that abolishing the death penalty will help eliminate racial and jurisdictional bias, reduce unnecessary waste of tax dollars and eliminate the risk of executing innocent people.
It plans to reintroduce the failed abolition bill sometime this year.
The Executive Director of Wyoming Interfaith Network and Laramie-based Jordon Bishop stated in an email that the organization opposes the penalty because “[It is] unjust, ineffective and inaccurate.”
He also said capital punishment is directly correlated with racial oppression and said if the state is serious about dismantling systems of oppression and violence, “abolishing the death penalty should be top priority.”
CCATDP also partners with American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming. Efforts to reach Sabrina King, who represents the ACLU in Laramie, were not successful.