SALT LAKE CITY
A Utah lawmaker has said he plans to introduce a bill that would allow the state to execute criminals convicted of child sex trafficking, calling it a necessary protection for defenseless children.
The hardline plan from state Rep. Paul Ray faces several legislative hurdles before it could become law, and it would test the boundaries of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on the death penalty, a challenge the Clearfield Republican said he welcomes.
“I’m sure we’ll have to have that discussion with the Supreme Court,” Ray said. “I’d like to push it, absolutely.”
Ray said there’s no recent case that prompted him to announce his plan, but it’s the second time this session he’s raised a proposal to change the state’s execution laws. Ray’s bill to bring back firing squads passed a committee hearing Wednesday by one vote.
It’s not clear whether Ray’s developing plan has enough support to pass, but he’s confident it can gain traction despite being criticized as a longshot. “I can guarantee the public, from what I’ve had feedback on, seems pretty supportive of doing something like this to the people that are predators on our children,” he said.
Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday didn’t indicate whether he’d sign such a measure.
Speaking at a general news conference, he said “child trafficking is, for most of us, just so heinous we can’t even hardly comprehend it.”
“But whether that rises to the level of capital punishment,” he said, pausing, “You know, capital punishment’s controversial in and of itself for first degree murder.”
Execution law in the U.S. dictates that crimes must involve a victim’s death or treason against the government to be eligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court ruled nearly 40 years ago that execution is too harsh a punishment for sexual assault, and justices made a similar decision in 2008 in a case involving the rape of a child.
The recent high court ruling didn’t address treason or spying, which Ray has seized as an opening. He says if the federal government can execute someone for a crime that doesn’t involve death, then his state should have the same right.
“Somebody’s got to stand up to these kids,” he said. “I’d like to lead out and say, ‘Utah’s drawing a line.'”
Similar measures come up on occasion across the nation. A failed Ohio bill two years ago would have allowed the death penalty for a second conviction of rape or sexual contact with a minor. And an unsuccessful 2010 Oklahoma measure would have allowed capital punishment for a felon later convicted of raping a young child.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Death Penalty Information Center, said some states have had laws allowing the death penalty for various crimes, but the outdated measures haven’t been used in modern times.
Dieter, whose group opposes capital punishment, said while child sex trafficking is a terrible crime, Ray’s bill would almost certainly be unconstitutional.
“We have a Supreme Court decision pretty much on point here,” he said. “We can do this and have it struck down five years from now with a lot of legal money spent.”
Ray remains undeterred. He said the death penalty shouldn’t be considered excessive for child sex trafficking. “Take a look at what it does to the kids,” he said. “I don’t think we can do enough to punish this crime.”