Utah lawmakers wrap up death penalty, pot, abortion bills

Members of the Senate debate on the Senate floor Wednesday in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers are polishing off a $14.7 billion budget that would pay for more than 9,700 new students expected in public schools next year and a bare-bones Medicaid plan that covers homeless adults.

A group of conservatives in Utah spoke out against the state’s ongoing use of the death penalty, citing a number of reasons why capital punishment goes against conservative ideals so many Utahns hold dear.

In a press conference in Salt Lake City, Darcy Van Orden, founder and executive director of the Utah Justice Coalition, argued that the death penalty is contrary to Republican ideals, mainly that it is not fiscally responsible, contradicts “pro-life” beliefs and grants the state immense power.

We agree.

From 1976 to 2018, Utah has carried out six executions.

A 2017 study by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice of the past 20 years concluded the state spent $40 million on 165 “death-eligible cases, only two of which have resulted in death sentences (at the time of the report).”

While death sentences are technically initially cheaper to taxpayers than life without parole, trials and lengthy appeals processes while an inmate is housed in death row foil this fiscal argument as it adds to the cost substantially and surpasses the cost of a sentence of life imprisonment carried out in maximum security. The state and local governing bodies can cripple under the costs of years of defense appeals.

This brings the additional relevant point that affording a good attorney can make the difference between life without parole and a death sentence; a decision so nonrevocable should not be based on something as fickle as a person arguing it.

One thing many Americans have witnessed in modern times and with the advancement of DNA testing, is the failure of the justice system to identify and sentence the true responsible parties; research Van Orden cited claims 165 people who have been sentenced to death were later exonerated. That should make us pause when considering taking a life.

If the inconsistency and fallibility of a death sentence continue to occur, it stands reason Utah should discuss if it is a punishment we should continue to utilize and carry out. Fiscally, it is the most wasteful path in pursuing justice and closure, and it requires that we pull funding from other needed areas to pay for ongoing appeals. More money goes towards prosecuting alleged criminals or appealing a conviction than it ever does to the victims of these horrible crimes.

Can a death sentence provide much needed leverage in a case if negotiated down to life without parole? Yes. We’ve seen that most recently in the case of the death of little Lizzie Shelley in Logan whose uncle was charged with aggravated murder but reportedly provided information on the location of her remains in order to take death penalty off the table. It remains an awful situation, and the ability to find her remains gave some closure to the family they deserved.

Is it always this straightforward or cooperative? Definitely not.

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt will be seeking the death penalty against Jerrod Baum for allegedly killing teens Riley Powell and Brelynne Otteson, whose bodies were later found in an abandoned mine shaft near Eureka. It will likely be years before this case comes to a decision resembling a “close.”

In the past state legislative session, a bill was proposed to outlaw the death penalty but fell short the votes it needed in the House.

According to research, the death penalty is seeing its lowest period of support in 40 years — since 1972 — across the country at 55%. In Utah, its estimated perhaps half to two-thirds of voters still show support, though, again, significantly lower than in previous decades.

We encourage our state legislators to take another look at the death penalty and decide if it is the best option, both financially and in the form of justice, for Utah to continue to pursue.