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Utah County Commission to sign resolution seeking repeal on death penalty

By Genelle Pugmire - | Oct 26, 2021

Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt speaks during a press conference on July 31, 2019, in this file photo.

A resolution declaring support for repealing and replacing the death penalty will be on the agenda for Wednesday’s Utah County Commission meeting.

The resolution calls on the Utah State Legislature to remove the death penalty option from state law, following nearly two dozen other states, and replace it with alternative measures that can still help ensure justice is served.

The commission is expected to support Utah County Attorney David Leavitt in his quest to have the legislature repeal the death penalty and instead opt for a sentence of life in prison or an alternative of equal measure.

“As a commission we’ve discussed this quite a bit,” said Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner.

“I’m grateful for this resolution. It’s a result of years of data and study,” Leavitt said. “It addresses, with facts, many of the big lies we as a society have allowed to persist about what the death penalty accomplishes.”

Utah County Commissioners Bill Lee, Amelia Powers Gardner and Tom Sakievich pose for a photo after Gardner's swearing-in ceremony at the Utah County Historic Courthouse in Provo on Thursday, April 29, 2021. (Connor Richards, Daily Herald file photo)

“It is time to dispel the myths that justice can only be found in the death penalty. It will never make our communities safer and government should not have that much power,” Leavitt added.

Gardner noted the strain on the county’s budget and on the taxpayers. The county went 20 years without a death penalty case before having two.

“Leavitt comes and asks for money for the case and then the public defenders would come and ask money for the same case,” Powers said.

Gardner noted that prior to being a commissioner, as clerk/auditor, the topic came up regarding the budget continually.

Gardner said that because it was not a good use of taxpayer dollars, the commission has decided not to fund the cases.

“It is the fiscally conservative thing to do,” Gardner said.

She noted that her attitude has changes since being an elected official. Gardner gets to see the hard evidence of data that is contrary to what she thought.

“It has been the most surprising and interesting item I’ve had to navigate as an elected official,” Gardner said. “Data shows the death penalty is not a deterrent.”

In the resolution it states, “the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice found that over a twenty-year period tracking death eligible cases, state and local expenses totaled almost $40 million for which only two new death sentences were realized,”

It adds that, “Utah County is required to pay for costs involving the prosecution and defense of such cases which, due to their unpredictable nature and infrequency, creates significant challenges for managing the county’s budget and allocating over $1 million annually for related expenses.”

In early comments and discussions, Leavitt has used Ron Lafferty, a former Utah County resident convicted of killing his sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her young daughter as an example of not only the costs involved with repeated court cases and repeals, but the lack of carry through on the death penalty by the state.

Lafferty was given the death penalty in 1984. After several appeals and new trials over 35 years, Lafferty had used up all of his options and in July of 2019 the state said the execution would go forward. Lafferty, 78, died in November of 2019 from causes due to health in the state prison.

While Ron Lafferty remained notable for the murders and the press coverage of him being on death row, many have forgotten Dan Lafferty, his brother and partner in the murders who received life imprisonment.

The commission’s resolution states, “The death penalty is not a deterrent, as states where the death penalty is not an option have a lower average murder rate than states that still have it. The last two individuals on “death row” in Utah to die did so due to natural causes”

In signing the resolution, the commissioners recognized the families who have been hurt and traumatized over the years and the suffering they may have gone through from losing a loved one.

“It is possible to achieve justice for and bring closure to victim family members through a Life Without Parole sentence,” the resolution states.

The resolution also notes the risks involved with capital punishment as it can proceed to the U.S. Supreme Court with lengthy appeals process and heightened legal scrutiny, which increases the costs to taxpayers and causes victim family members to wait a “very long time for justice to be served.”

State Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, and State Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, are co-sponsoring a bill in the legislature to repeal the death penalty.

Connor Boyack with Libertas Institute has been involved with the support of overturning the death penalty and the issues attached to it.

“Countless conservatives support eliminating the death penalty because it’s how we can achieve justice without added taxpayer expense, hurting victim family members and creating risk to innocent people,” Boyack said. “Utah County being the first county in the state to lead out on this issue highlights how people who believe in limited government are deeply concerned about the government’s power to kill people and the many problems that power creates.”

Boyack noted that Representative Snow’s proposed bill is a conservative approach to solving this problem and achieving justice.

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