A coalition of conservatives from various states, including Utah, came together Monday to speak out against capital punishment.
“We have come to the conclusion that the death penalty does not work and can’t be made to work,” reads a statement signed by more than 250 conservative activists and Republican legislators, “not in spite of our conservative principles, but because of them.”
Darcy Van Orden, founder and executive director of the Utah Justice Coalition, said at Monday’s press conference that the death penalty goes against fundamental Republican ideals: it is expensive, contradicts “pro-life” beliefs and puts too much power in the hands of the state.
“As a conservative, I really believe in the most limited government,” Van Orden said. “If I don’t trust (the) government to have its hands in all these different aspects of my life ... why would I trust them to put people to death?”
Application of capital punishment is not only inefficient, Van Orden added, it is inconsistent. Whether a defendant receives the death penalty is frequently based on where the crime took place, the prosecutor’s ideological bent and whether the person accused of the crime was white or a minority.
“You have some cases that are by far more egregious, but if in fact the person had a good attorney … they end up with life without parole,” Van Orden said. “You truly are getting the justice you can afford in America.”
Van Orden also pointed to research showing that more than 165 people who’ve been sentenced to death in the U.S. have later been exonerated, demonstrating the fallibility of the criminal justice system.
The press conference was hosted by Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, an organization formed in Montana that has since branched out across the country. The conference came on the heels of a July announcement by the United States Department of Justice that the federal government will resume executions for the first time in 16 years.
State Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, Wyoming, said he is “extremely troubled” by the justice department’s decision to move forward with executions, adding that it puts the U.S. in the same “categories of nations like North Korea.”
Ohio State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, said he believes opposing the death penalty is “the pro-life thing to do,” especially given the possibility of a wrongfully convicted person being executed.
Twenty-nine states currently have death penalty laws on the books, four of which have government-imposed moratoriums prohibiting executions being carried out, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Utah legislators proposed a bill in 2016 to outlaw the death penalty, an effort that passed through the Senate but failed the reach the House floor. A similar bill was proposed last year but fell short a few votes in the House.
In July, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt announced he would be seeking the death penalty against Jerrod Baum for allegedly killing 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson, who went missing in December 2017 and whose bodies were later found in an abandoned mine near Eureka.
At a press conference, Leavitt called Baum “the sort of individual from whom society ought to be protected” and that “that’s a weight that I feel as a Utah County Attorney as I weigh how do we do that.”
Part of Van Orden’s opposition to capital punishment is the cost and time it takes for trials and appeals to place. Utah spent over $40 million on 165 death-penalty cases in two decades, according to a 2017 report from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Only two resulted in death sentences.
“As a very fiscally conservative state, how can Utah waste those funds?,” said Van Orden. “We could actually be pouring that money into helping victims” and “into programs that keep Utahns safe.”