CHEYENNE, Wyo. — What do the Catholic Church, the League of Women Voters, the Greek Orthodox Church and a group of concerned conservatives all have in common?
They want the Wyoming Legislature to repeal the death penalty in the state.
“This is one cause that has brought together such a disparate group and it’s very positive, it’s very powerful and I’ve never been involved in anything like it,” Marguerite Herman who lobbies the state legislature for the League of Women Voters of Wyoming said on Monday, Dec. 10
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Her comments came at the end of a “Silent March” organized by members of the Wyoming Campaign to End the Death Penalty 2020 in downtown Cheyenne.
“What we are hoping to accomplish with the Silent March is just a march in solitude for all of those that are currently on death row or that have been executed by the death penalty,” said Kylie Taylor, state coordinator for the Wyoming Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.
“The initial thought behind the Silent March is that today was the day that many inmates were supposed to be federally executed and thankfully have has a stay in their execution. But we’re still marching for them and for all of those others.”
Several of the marchers on Monday said they’ve experience a shift in their own perspective on the death penalty over the years. That’s something they hope happens with more of Wyoming’s state legislators so that a bill to repeal the death penalty in the state can succeed.
Legislation introduced by Representative Jared Olsen passed on a vote in the Wyoming House of Representatives during their last legislative session, but stalled in the Senate.
Catholic Deacon Mike Lehman lives at Cheyenne’s Holy Trinity Parish and acts as a liaison to the Wyoming Legislature for the Diocese of Cheyenne.
Lehman originally supported the death penalty.
“I think I had a deep sense of you know, injustice when somebody kills someone,” he explained. “That deep seated sort of anger, frustration and need for, you know, some sense of balance in the world.”
“And I just assumed since that’s what our society has done all along that was an okay thing. And I related to the hurt of victims.”
But reading and learning more about the topic changed his mind.
“Once I started thinking about it a little bit more, reading stories of people who have been executed, and reading about people who have been exonerated, who, some of them were moments away from being killed and then found out the government made a huge mistake,” Lehman said.
358 people have been exonerated in the United States after being given death penalty sentences, according to Taylor. In 28% of those cases, the individuals plead guilty.
45% involved misapplication of forensic evidence and 16% involved informants.
166 inmates have been freed from state death rows due to wrongful convictions, according to “Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.”
Father Christopher Xanthos is a Cheyenne-based Greek Orthodox Church priest and says that his perspective, too, has shifted.
“Every single person I talk to, I see it as an opportunity because so many people, myself included, used to be in favor of the death penalty,” he said. “You know, I gave in to that argument where it is a deterrent or it saves money or all this. And it doesn’t.”
League of Women Voters of Wyoming President Susan Simpson says she now opposes the death penalty for a number of reasons.
“When I was an ignorant high school senior, I said it was better to execute people because it was less expensive, but that was really not a very moral, kind or informed opinion,” she said. “It’s not timely. It is unjust, expensive and the innocent can be convicted and have been convicted in other states.”
“I think just learning more about it and reading about the innocence projects and reading about people who are mentally ill or who have disabilities and reading about people who don’t have money [changed my mind]. All of those are the kinds of people who are being convicted. We believe in liberty and justice for all and we don’t get it with the death penalty.”
Both Lehman and Herman report that communication with Wyoming’s lawmakers has been positive.
“This has been a very soul-searching kind of topic, very thoughtful and we’ve just been really encouraged by the deep consideration that the legislature is having and that’s what gives us optimism,” Herman said.
Lehman says that financial arguments tend to be the ones that he thinks stick for some legislators.
“Last year, we saw a a lot of people thinking about, ‘Well, we didn’t know we spent this much money just to keep it legal,'” he explained. “Then if you have a capital case, the cost goes up exponentially and so that won a lot of votes last year.”
“Especially now with our economy the way it is and the governor right now struggling to keep important programs funded and turning over every rock to try and find some money.”
Herman points to an argument that seems most difficult to get legislators to budge from supporting the death penalty.
“[Some legislators] think prosecutors need [the death penalty on the table] and I have argued with what we know about false confessions, do you really want a plea that is based on something that’s coerced because you’re afraid?” she said. “You have basically a gun to your head [in the case of coerced confessions] and that’s something that we should feel very cautious about and not comfortable about exacting guilty pleas in circumstances like that.”
“So I really don’t have a lot of sympathy for that argument, but it is very powerful.”
Lehman says that he sees inconsistency in some people’s positions on the death penalty.
“We have a lot of folks who don’t trust the government with out taxes, and, you know, that’s fine,” he said. “But then turn right around and say, ‘When it comes to life, we completely trust the government.’ That just doesn’t seem like a sound, connected reasoning.”
Xanthos shares a similar perspective.
“Who knows? In the future, maybe a more corrupt government will kill us because of our beliefs, they might kill us because of our religion,” he said. “This is something we really need to take into account and consider because the government should never ever have the right to kill its own citizens.”
“It’s a Wyoming issue and my concern is always first and foremost keeping the rights of the citizens intact. The government should never have the right to terminate a life. So the position with the Greek Orthodox Church is that all life is sacred from the womb to the tomb. At no time should anybody terminate somebody else’s life. And of course we look to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who when he was on the cross, he said, ‘Forgive them father, they know not what they do.'”
Lehman thinks it is important that people reach out to their legislators to learn why they support the death penalty and find sound reasoning to persuade them to reconsider.
“That means taking somebody who has obviously, they’ve done a terrible crime, and incapacitating them and then executing them when they are completely helpless,” he said. “To think that through and say, ‘Okay, well green button, red button, you decide.'”
“Make it real for folks. I think once people start to engage on that level, then they start to change their minds a little bit. I know mine did.”
Taylor says that the campaign is seeing some traction.
“I think we’ve had such great momentum,” she said. “We have done some documentary screenings the last few months and had a great turnout at all of those. We’re seeing a lot of positive responses from individuals through Facebook and email and just in general, reaching out to us and it is really positive and I feel very hopeful going forward.”
Herman thinks it is only a matter of time before the death penalty is repealed in Wyoming.
“I think the legislature is kind of wrestling with themselves and wrestling with what their constituents might think…and they need to talk to constituents,” she said. “I feel really confident that if it’s not 2020, it is 2021.”
“It’s really wonderful because you can [support death penalty repeal] from a conservative, or a liberal, from a spiritual, fiscal, small government [perspective]. There are so many reasons to repeal the death penalty and I am just thrilled to be working on it.”
Xanthos sees this as an opportunity for Wyoming to act as a leader.
“Wyoming is a small state but it has great power,” he said. “When the repeal occurs, we believe that other states are going to fall like dominoes with them looking to us as leaders.”
Simpson, too, is optimistic.
“The repeal only failed by a few votes,” she said. “And so we’re hoping that people will open their hearts and listen to the injustice and act on it.”