Guest Column

It is time for the death penalty to go away

By Warren Murphy
Posted 3/4/21

Early on the morning of Jan. 22, 1992, at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, Mark Hopkinson was strapped into a gurney to be executed by lethal injection. He was pronounced dead at 12:57 a.m. …

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Guest Column

It is time for the death penalty to go away

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Early on the morning of Jan. 22, 1992, at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, Mark Hopkinson was strapped into a gurney to be executed by lethal injection. He was pronounced dead at 12:57 a.m. Thus ended a drama that had gone on for nearly 20 years after Mr. Hopkinson was charged with arranging the murder of a witness who was to testify against him. 

Those present that morning included prison guards, the penitentiary warden and several witnesses who attested to the fact that the State of Wyoming put him to death. I know this story intimately because I was one of those witnesses. 

Before 1992, the last execution in Wyoming took place in 1965. There have been only 16 “legally” authorized executions since the infamous hanging of Tom Horn in 1903. There are legendary stories of vigilante hangings before that, but for the most part, executions have been carried out sparingly. 

There is now a growing movement in Wyoming to abolish the death penalty once and for all. The biggest argument against the death penalty is of course the moral one. All of the mainline Christian denominations have official positions against the death penalty. Their argument: only God can take a life. Christian love must always overcome vengeance. When humans authorize death, it is an admission that all have failed. Failure then becomes victorious.

Pope Francis even went so far as to proclaim that capital punishment can never be sanctioned because it becomes an “attack” on the dignity of human beings. Jesus himself was a victim of capital punishment, and he even went so far as to forgive his executioners. 

Studies have long shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. Most murders are committed as a result of emotion, irrationality, sickness or disfunction. For some, it is an act of self-destruction. States such as Florida and Texas, which historically lead the nation in executions, also have some of the highest murder rates. So much for deterrence.

One of the biggest arguments against the death penalty is the cost. Trying a capital punishment case is extremely expensive because of the numerous required appeals through the courts. In Wyoming, bringing forth a capital case would break the budgets of many of our counties. It actually costs less to imprison someone for life. Not to mention that many death row inmates have had their cases reversed during the time the legal process played out. Execution leaves out the opportunity for new revelations, especially with the recent improvements in DNA evidence.

Finally, we must recognize that the death penalty is used more often against people of color, and those who are poor and don’t receive the best legal representation. Wyoming’s history is no different. Black and Chinese people have been executed disproportionately in the history of this state. 

These are just a few of the reasons for officially ending capital punishment. 

There is an alternative: In 1992, the state’s voters approved a ballot initiative to offer the possibility of “life without parole.” This allows a way to spare a life while leaving open the possibility of rare reversal if new evidence is introduced.

Even Wyoming’s famous lawyer Gerry Spence, who prosecuted the Hopkinson case, later said of the death penalty: “It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.” Justice C. Stuart Brown, one of the judges presiding in the case, also expressed reluctance about the death penalty and stated, “If I was absolutely sure life imprisonment meant life imprisonment, I would have no problem abolishing the death penalty.”

Life without parole should now make that possible. Wyoming is not known as a state known for vindictiveness. Now is the time to end the death penalty and honor human dignity.

(The Rev. Warren Murphy of Cody is an Episcopal priest who has served for nearly 44 years in Wyoming. He has worked since the 1990s for criminal justice reform and ending the death penalty, and has recently written about Mark Hopkinson’s execution in his new memoir, Unique and Different, available now at www.uniqueanddifferent.info.)

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