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February 10, 2018

New Utah death penalty study may add momentum to repeal efforts

This local article, headlined "New study of Utah’s use of the death penalty suggests life without parole costs less, prompts another call to abolish capital punishment," reports on a new report which could help jump start efforts to abolish the death penalty in the Beehive State.  Here are the details and some context:

A group of Utah attorneys, advocates and state staff have spent the last year studying the state’s death penalty. The working group, created by Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, examined several areas, including costs, aggravating factors and public attitude.  The CCJJ report, released Friday [and available here], noted there were “fundamental difficulties inherent in analyzing death penalty policy.” The group did not make any recommendations or proposed changes to Utah’s current capital punishment system.

But a group called Utah Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty said the report shows that a significant amount of money has been spent seeking death sentences without much in return.  They called on lawmakers to abolish capital punishment in Utah. “This report should give pause to anyone who thought that because capital punishment is so rarely used in Utah that the cost of maintaining a death penalty would be negligible,” director Kevin Greene said in a statement. “... The millions of dollars that we have been wasting on the death penalty should either be returned to the taxpayers in the form of a tax cut or used for crime prevention or to help victims of crime.”

Here’s what the study found:

Cost estimates for the price of the death penalty in Utah are limited, the group noted. Legislative analysts in 2012 estimated that a death sentence and decades of appeals costs $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence. Another more recent report estimated that Utah and its counties have spent almost $40 million to prosecute the 165 death-penalty eligible cases that have been filed in the last two decades. Only two cases in that time have resulted in a death sentence....

Utah currently has over 60 aggravating factors in the homicide law that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty — and state lawmakers are contemplating adding even more. At a recent legislative hearing, some expressed concern that Utah may have too many crimes that qualify for the death penalty, and that an appeals court could torpedo the capital punishment law for being too broad. In the CCJJ report, the group noted that they could not come to an agreement about whether the number of aggravating factors should be limited. They noted that most states rarely remove aggravating factors — and instead have been adding more through the years.

The working group looked at several polls about Utahns’ attitude toward the death penalty, noting that there have been conflicting results. Two polls showed Utahns support the death penalty, while two others showed less support for execution in favor of life-without-parole sentences. The group concluded it was “probably reasonable to suggest simply that public support for the death penalty in Utah is declining over previous highs.”

Utah legislators came close to outlawing the death penalty in 2016 — but the bill never reached the House floor before the midnight deadline on the last night of session. Criminal justice reforms groups have said another push to end capital punishment in Utah is likely during this legislative session — though a bill to abolish it has not yet been public.

Since 2010, Utah prosecutors have filed 119 aggravated murder cases, according to Utah court data. Such cases can result in punishments of 25 years to life, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or death. Only one of those cases — a retrial of a 1993 case — resulted in a death sentence.

Of the nine men currently on Utah’s death row, two were originally convicted as long ago as 1985. All but one of the rest were convicted before 1999, although one case was retried in 2015 and resulted in a second capital murder conviction.  All nine have ongoing appeals underway in state or federal court.

The last execution was carried out in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad for the 1984 murder of Michael Burdell, a Salt Lake City lawyer, during Gardner’s failed escape attempt from the 3rd District courthouse.

Notably, in the not too distant past, a significant number of states abolished the death penalty formally or functionally.  As reflected in this DPIC page, from 2007 through 2013, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland became abolitionist states.  Since 2013, the only significant legislative action on this front took place in Nebraska; but the death penalty repeal passed by state senators in 2015 was rejected by voters in a 2016 referendum. In light of this recent history, I think it would be a pretty big deal if abolition efforts picked up steam in Utah.

February 10, 2018 at 10:26 AM | Permalink

Comments

It would be notable if a conservative state like Utah ends the death penalty though given its small population and limited number of executions, the net effect would be somewhat small. Cost arguments might be more convincing in such a state given the small number though like the use of the firing squad being influenced by religious beliefs in particular, only so far.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 10, 2018 11:46:52 AM

I always question the assumptions in cost-benefit analysis. In my state, with fewer cases in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, juvenile life without parole is becoming the new death penalty (i.e. capital attorneys are being assigned to the cases and the cases are being tried in the same manner as death penalty cases). Thus, while for adults, seeking the death penalty is more expensive than seeking life without parole today; there is a very real chance that,if the death penalty were abolished, almost all of that expense would shift to life without parole cases.

Posted by: tmm | Feb 12, 2018 11:45:17 AM

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