SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would expand capital punishment in Utah so criminals could be executed if they're convicted of aggravated human trafficking or child sex exploitation resulting in death passed its first test Friday.
Members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voted 6-5 to approve HB176, despite concern from both lawmakers and members of the public that the legislation is unnecessary and potentially costly.
Ralph Dellapiana, of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, spoke against the proposal during a public hearing Friday, saying the courts only allow the death penalty to be used on the "worst of the worst."
"(HB176) seems to capture people that would not normally be deemed the worst of the worst," Dellapiana said.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, the bill's sponsor, said human trafficking is a big problem in Utah, so he wants to hold the leaders of human trafficking rings accountable.
"I want to be able to pull down a cartel kingpin or somebody and put them on death row if women or girls are dying in their trafficking rings," Ray told the Associated Press.
The proposal is the latest effort by Ray to institute hardline death-penalty plans. He ushered in a law in 2015 allowing Utah to use firing squads in executions if the state can't obtain lethal injection drugs.
The bill next moves to the full House for consideration.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah spoke against the proposal, saying it is more effective to provide support and protections for the actual victims of human trafficking.
ACLU spokeswoman Anna Thomas said the death penalty is ineffective, as it almost never results in the sentence being given, and is more costly than a life sentence.
"There's also this troubling trend in Utah where for every very serious social ill, Rep. Ray is really quick to offer the death penalty as a solution," Thomas said. "And it never works and it will never work."
Ray said he believes an inmate spending life in prison would be more expensive because of medical costs and court appeals.
The lawmaker tried to pass a similar bill last year, but it stalled in a Senate committee.
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.
Ray said he also plans to introduce a proposal this year that would require the death penalty if someone kills a police officer. The plan is meant to punish someone who wakes up one morning and specifically decides to kill a police officer because of their job, he said.
The ACLU said the proposal is redundant because the death penalty can already be sought if someone kills a law enforcement officer.