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SALT LAKE CITY — As an effort to repeal and replace Utah's death penalty statue gears up, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is leaving the door open for the debate to take place, saying he's open to "reevaluating" his feelings on the law.
The Republican governor, a past supporter of Utah's death penalty, said during his monthly PBS Utah news conference Thursday that he's "evaluating" his position on the proposed legislation, and he hasn't made a final decision.
However, Cox said he's "very interested" to see the bill, which as currently drafted would repeal Utah's capital punishment law and replace it with a new sentence for aggravated murder of 45 years to life in prison.
The Utah Legislature will debate the proposal in its next general session slated for January. Bill sponsors Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, are both conservatives who say they've had changes of heart on whether the death penalty is a just or viable form of punishment.
Cox said he has supported capital punishment in the past, "but certainly I've had occasion to reevaluate my feelings about the death penalty."
"I think that certainly anytime we take a life, especially the government taking a life, it's a very conservative thing to do to pause and make sure we always get that one right," he said.
Cox added that he's "confident" people convicted of capital crimes in Utah have been rightfully executed, "but I'm not confident that across the country that has always been the case, and certainly been troubled by some of the cases that have been out there."
Since 1973, 185 death row inmates have been exonerated in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit that provides data and analysis on capital punishment.
"There's no way to tell how many of the 1,534 people executed since 1976 may also have been innocent," the Death Penalty Information Center says on its website, noting "courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence when the defendant is dead."
The governor said he's also interested in talking to and hearing from victims' families, who have experienced what it's like to be part of a convicted killer's often decadeslong appeals process.
"That's a critical piece of this conversation," Cox said, noting he's gathered from past discussions that "there seems to be a little bit of a change in sentiment" among those families who experience the court appellate process and "having to relive that over and over and over again, maybe that's not the best thing for them."
Overall, Cox said it's a debate that needs to play out, and he's not picking sides yet.
"All I can say is that I'm anxious to have this conversation," he said, "and to listen to all sides, and we'll make the right decision."