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September 15, 2021

Utah prosecutors urge repeal of death penalty as "grave defect that creates a liability for victims of violent crime, defendants' due process rights, and for the public good"

As reported in this local article from Utah, a "coalition of district attorneys and county prosecutors from around the state made noise on Tuesday, presenting a joint letter to be sent to Governor Spencer Cox and the State Legislature, asking for a repeal of the death penalty."  Here is more:

Citing six specific reasons, the four attorneys; Christina Sloan of Grand County, Margaret Olson of Summit County, David Leavitt of Utah County, and Sim Gill of Salt Lake County combined their influence to pen a recommendation to replace the death penalty sentence for aggravated murder to a term of 45 years to life....

The last person to be executed by the state in Utah was Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 18, 2010. His execution by firing squad (yes, that is still an option if lethal injection is held unconstitutional, unavailable, or if the convicted selected that method before May 3, 2004) was highly publicized at the time.  However, it came 26 years after his murder of an attorney during an escape attempt while being transported to a hearing for a separate robbery and murder.

Following his death sentence, which was given in October 1985, Gardner’s case was trapped in a series of appeals and defense motions that delayed his execution. Likely, the court and legal fees that were involved in finally carrying out his sentence were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more....  The coalition of attorneys in Utah referred to another study concluding that death penalty convictions cost taxpayers $1.12 million more than holding them for life. “A death sentence also carries the inevitable expenses of appeal.  The taxpayers must pay for both the prosecution and the defense in these hearings,” the letter reads....

Attempts have been made before to repeal the death penalty in Utah. In 2018, a death penalty amendment was introduced in the state legislature as House Bill 379.  The provisions were filed in the house but didn’t pass, even after a favorable recommendation from the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

This four-page prosecutor letter, styled as "An Open Letter to Governor Spencer Cox and the Utah State Legislature," is worth a full read. It starts and ends this way:

As attorneys and duly elected public prosecutors, we have sworn to support, obey, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Utah.  We also have a statutory duty to call to the State Legislature's attention any defect in the operation of the law.  In fulfillment of that oath and responsibility, we alert legislators and the people of a grave defect that creates a liability for victims of violent crime, defendants' due process rights, and for the public good. The defect which we urge the Legislature to repeal is the death penalty....

Doctors take the Hippocratic oath to do no harm to people when they become licensed.  The promise of an attorney is one to uphold and defend the Constitution.  Yet as prosecutors, our client is the public.  We file our cases in the name of the state of Utah.  We work to protect public safety, preserve the privacy and dignity of crime victims and to hold the guilty accountable.  Then, once a defendant is convicted, we seek to make victims whole and ensure that a defendant does not harm others again.  When someone commits a violent murder, nothing can repair the damage that person has caused.  No earthly court can order restored life to a murdered son or daughter or a healed heart to a crushed husband or wife.  However, we can ensure that the offender goes to prison.  If the Legislature repeals the death penalty, the available sentences for aggravated murder will be life without parole or 25 years to life.  Twenty-five years is far too short of a time for our most violent offenders.  Most people convicted of aggravated murder are young men.  We believe that justice requires the third optionof45 years to life to be made available. As prosecutors, we are not seeking mercy for the murderer but justice for the people.  A 45 to life sentence will mean that if an offender ever gets out, it will not be until the twilight of their lives.  That will protect the public and, to the extent possible, provide a small measure of justice for what that person has taken away.  Accordingly, we call on the Legislature to remedy this defect in the law by repealing the death penalty and creating a new possible alternative to life without parole of 45 years to life.

September 15, 2021 at 05:10 PM | Permalink

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