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Even as other states move away from capital punishment, a lawmaker has prepared legislation to expand the death penalty in Utah.

Rep. Paul Ray's proposal would allow the state to execute child-sex traffickers.

The Clearfield Republican floated the idea last session. Now, he has drafted a bill that he hopes to bring before a legislative committee this summer.

"It's a huge problem right now, and the criminals want to take a risk [thinking], 'Hey, I'll take a few years in jail for this,' " Ray said. "Understand, these are the baddest of the bad. These people are monsters. I think it sends a message: Don't do this in Utah. Don't take our kids. … Don't operate here."

The proposal could spark a wider debate about whether Utah should execute criminals and whether, logistically, it can continue the practice.

Ray successfully sponsored a measure this past session that drew global attention, bringing back the firing squad as a backup for executions if Utah is unable to obtain the chemical cocktail for lethal injections, a problem that has arisen in other states.

When that bill passed, Utah's Senate Judiciary Committee voted to study the death penalty more broadly.

Meanwhile, opponents of capital punishment cited a growing chorus from groups in Utah seeking to abolish the practice — although they still are seeking a sponsor for such a measure.

Nebraska's Legislature passed a bill last week repealing the death penalty, although the governor may veto it.

Ray's latest bill comes, he said, partly as a result of vice squad ride-alongs he has taken.

The experiences prompted him to push several bills cracking down on prostitution and sex trafficking.

He said he was inspired by the anti-sex-trafficking work of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who traveled to South America last year as part of an undercover sting to break up such a ring.

Ray is prepared for pushback from civil-liberties groups and others — and they are ready to deliver it.

Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said expanding the death penalty is the wrong way to go, arguing it would not deter child-sex traffickers.

In addition, the group generally objects to capital punishment because it is costly to carry out, does not provide closure to victims and has resulted in the execution of people wrongly convicted.

"It's increasingly becoming more and more difficult to figure out ways to humanely, if that's even possible, put people to death at the hands of the state," Lowe said. "So expanding the death penalty seems odd."

The Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank, published an opinion piece in The Salt Lake Tribune last week calling for an end to the death penalty in Utah on similar grounds.

There also may be constitutional problems with Ray's proposal. In the 2008 case of Kennedy v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a statute that imposed a death sentence for rape of a child and said that execution would be disproportionate punishment, violating the Eighth Amendment, in cases that don't involve the death of the victim.

"As it relates to crimes against individuals," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, " … the death penalty should not be expanded to instances where the victim's life was not taken."

Ray points to treason as a crime in which execution can be imposed without a victim's death. If it can be a fitting punishment in that crime, he reasons, then child-sex trafficking should also be covered.

"The battle is going to be is this constitutional or not," he said. "That's going to be the whole battle, and I think there's been case law in the past that we can do this."

Ray said he has discussed his proposal with Reyes. Missy Larsen, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said it would be worthwhile to have a lawyer review the case law, but her boss was noncommittal about the legislation.

"This is the one true deterrent," Ray said. "Murder is a crime of passion. I'm not sure you use the death penalty to deter murder. … But [sex trafficking] is something people clearly think through when they're doing it. So I think having the strongest penalty in the country or the world says we will not accept it here in Utah."

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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