NEW VOICES: Republican Former Death Penalty Supporter Leads Repeal Effort in Utah

Stephen Urquhart (pictured), a Republican state senator in Utah, supported the death penalty until about a year ago, when a friend convinced him that capital punishment didn't fit his conservative beliefs. Now Urquhart sees the death penalty as inefficient, costly, and wrong and is the lead sponsor of a bill to repeal the state's death penalty. He said concerns about the cost of the death penalty and the risk of executing an innocent person changed his stance on the issue. In discussions with his colleagues in the legislature, he draws a distinction between, "the death penalty in reality and the death penalty in theory." He points out the lengthy time between the time a death sentence is imposed and when it is carried out, which he says victimizes families and leaves them with "scars that can never heal." He also points to the high cost of the death penalty, which he placed at "$1.6 million for every prisoner we execute." Then, he says, "for the clincher, I ask my conservative friends what they think government does extremely well. And then I ask them what they think government does perfectly. And they usually say, ‘It doesn't do anything perfectly.’ And then I ask, ‘Yet we’re going to give ourselves the godlike power over life and death?’" He also said that, increasingly, he has moral qualms about capital punishment: "I’m thinking that it’s wrong for government to be in business in killing its own citizens. That cheapens life." Described as a longshot to succeed this year, Urquhart's bill to prospectively repeal the death penalty passed Utah's Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support in February on a vote of 5-2. The bill will face debate by the full Senate later in this legislative session.

(A. Phillips, "Why one Utah Republican changed his mind on the death penalty — and is leading the effort to abolish it," The Washington Post, February 26, 2016; M. Price, "Utah Senate Panel OKs Longshot Death Penalty Repeal," Associated Press, February 23, 2016.) See New Voices and Recent Legislative Activity.