April 01, 2021 Repeal

Wyoming Legislature Votes to Keep Death Penalty and Defund Death Penalty Representation

By Annika Russell, DPRP Intern

On March 1, 2021, state Senator Brian Boner (R-Douglas) introduced a bill, Senate File 150, to abolish the death penalty in Wyoming. Sen. Boner defended the bill largely on fiscal grounds, emphasizing that the death penalty costs taxpayers over $750,000 annually. The death penalty has been in effect in Wyoming since 1977, but the state has only held one execution since that time. For many years a man by the name of Dale Eaton was the only prisoner left on the state’s death row, but his sentence was overturned by an appeals court in 2019, and it is unclear whether he will be resentenced. Sen. Boner remarked, “The only thing that is real about the death penalty in this state is the cost.”

Wyoming legislators have been especially focused on passing cost-saving legislation since the state’s significant budget shortfalls have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The Legislative Service Office reported that a death penalty repeal would decrease expenditures for the Office of the State Public Defender (SPD) by $868,375 in the fiscal year 2022. The bill’s fiscal note explained:

By eliminating the death penalty, the SPD would not be required to staff and fund capital cases, nor would it have to pay for continued work on re-sentencing [...] The need to staff and fund capital cases with responsibilities that are complex, numerous and heightened and greater than lesser punishments, vary from year to year.
Wyoming state welcome sign

Wyoming state welcome sign

On March 4, 2021, the bill passed the state Senate's revenue committee with a 4-1 vote, marking the second time in Wyoming’s history that a death penalty repeal bill had passed a senate committee and moved onto a full vote. (A similar repeal bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019 but failed in an 12-18 floor vote.)

The following week, both the House and Senate passed budget legislation that cut funding for the SPD’s death penalty representation. However, days later on March 18, the death penalty repeal bill failed to pass the Senate in an 11-19 vote. 

The decision to defund capital defense services yet preserve capital punishment faced criticism from anti-death penalty activists. Kylie Taylor, state coordinator of Wyoming Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, wrote:

Today’s vote to keep the death penalty, paired with that budget, risks a constitutional crisis. We have the death penalty — a failed government program that risks innocent lives — but no means to provide the right to an adequate defense, as defined by our Constitution. Many conservative lawmakers understand that, and we know it is only a matter of time before they revisit this broken policy and end Wyoming’s death penalty once and for all.

The information and views provided in the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Death Penalty Representation Project’s blog do not constitute official statements by the ABA and do not represent official ABA policy. For more information, please visit our policy and statement pages.