April 11, 2018

States Attempt to Alter, Repeal Death Penalty

Sylvia Krohn, Project Associate

2018 has seen multiple state efforts to repeal the death penalty through legislative action. While many of these efforts have come close, none so far has succeeded. States that have attempted death penalty abolition this year include Washington, Utah, New Hampshire, and Louisiana.

According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, when given the choice between the death penalty and life without the possibility of parole,  51 percent of American voters prefer a sentence of life. However, 64 percent of those same voters are opposed to abolishing the death penalty nation-wide. Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, suggested the message from those polled is to “keep the death penalty, but just don’t use it.”  While repeal efforts are complicated by moral and religious arguments, lawmakers leading these efforts in their states are expressing confidence that the issue will circle back to the floor in future legislative sessions.

Washington

A bill to repeal the death penalty in Washington state passed through the Senate on February 14, 2018, with a 26-22 split. Although the bill had bipartisan support, both Democrats and Republicans bucked usual party lines on the vote, with some Democrats opposing the bill and some Republicans supporting it. The bill was then sent to the State House of Representatives, where it lacked sufficient support to reach the floor for a vote.

The bill ultimately failed despite several factors supporting repeal, including the fact that in 2014, Governor Jay Inslee enacted a moratorium on all executions. A study conducted by Seattle University also seemed to support repeal: the study found that capital cases cost the state approximately $1 million dollars more per case than similar cases where the death penalty was not being sought.

Washington’s legislature also rejected an amendment that would have put the fate of the state’s death penalty into the hands of its voters, along with two amendments that would have limited but retained the use of capital punishment in the state, in cases where the victim was a police or corrections officer and if the defendant requested the death penalty.  

Utah

Utah Republican Senator Gage Froerer introduced HB379 in January to abolish capital punishment in the state, following a report by the state’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice that highlighted the heavy cost to litigate death penalty cases. Similar to the Seattle University study in Washington, this report estimated that death penalty cases and appeals cost the state around $1.6 million more per case than life-without-parole cases and that the state had spent approximately $40 million over two decades to prosecute 165 death penalty-eligible cases, resulting in only two death sentences.

On March 2, Representative Froerer pulled the bill off the House floor due to a lack of support. This follows a similar attempt to repeal the death penalty in Utah in 2016, which failed to reach the House floor by the midnight deadline of the last legislative session that year. Also failing to pass was HB70, a bill that would have called for further in-depth study and cost analysis of the death penalty in the state.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire is the only New England state that retains the death penalty. The New Hampshire legislature recently sent a bill abolishing capital punishment to Republican Governor Chris Sununu for signature, but the Governor has threatened to veto the bill. On April 26, the House voted 223-116 to pass SB593, which had cleared the Senate earlier in the month. The legislature is now focused on collecting enough votes to override a veto.

Despite large bipartisan support, multiple efforts to repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire have failed in recent years. In 2000, both the Senate and House voted to repeal the death penalty, but Governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the bill. More recently, in 2014, a repeal effort had the support of both the House and then-governor Maggie Hassan but ultimately failed in the Senate where the vote was split 12-12.  

If the legislature fails to collect enough votes to override Governor Sununu’s expected veto, the death penalty will remain in a state that has not executed anyone since 1939 and currently has only one prisoner on death row. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the state has no current supply of lethal injection drugs, no established procedure for obtaining them, no official protocol for carrying out an execution, and no location for doing so.

Louisiana

On April 11, 2018, Louisiana’s House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice voted 10-8 to reject HB162, which would have repealed the state’s death penalty, after over two hours of debate on the issue. The Senate is now considering its own death penalty repeal legislation in a similar but separate bill. On April 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-1 to advance SB51 to the floor for discussion. That bill is scheduled for discussion on May 8, 2018. If the Senate bill passes, it will then be sent to the same House committee that rejected HB162.

Sylvia Krohn, Project Associate