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Sen. Urquhart wants to abolish Utah's 'broken' death penalty

First Published      Last Updated Feb 17 2016 05:40 pm


Public opinion » Tribune/Hinckley Institute poll shows broad support for capital punishment in Utah.

There are nine men on Utah's death row, three of whom have been there for almost 30 years. A bill in the works from Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, would cap that population ­— abolishing the death penalty in future Utah cases, even though he once supported the practice.

"In 2015, you can only be theoretically in support of the death penalty, because it is broken," said Urquhart, an attorney. "Even for the most ardent supporter of the death penalty, you gotta question it."

Under the bill as it is being drafted, those currently on Utah's death row could still be executed, Urquhart explained, but the punishment would be off the table in all future prosecutions.



Eight of the death-row inmates were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death before 1999. One was retried in 2015 and again convicted and sentenced to die. The most recent death sentence in Utah was given in 2008, when Floyd Eugene Maestas was convicted of the stabbing and strangulation death of 72-year-old Donna Lou Bott during a 2004 break-in and robbery at her Salt Lake City home.

The last time Utah carried out the death penalty was June 18, 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad, an event that made international headlines.

Abolishing capital punishment might be an uphill climb. The practice has historically been supported by conservative Utahns and the Republican-dominated Legislature, even as its use nationally is on the decline and polls show the majority of Americans now prefer the alternative punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole for the most serious crimes.

Some 69 percent of Utahns approve of the death penalty, according to a recent poll conducted by SurveyUSA for The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

Fewer than one in five (19 percent) of those surveyed disapprove of the punishment and 12 percent were undecided, according to the data collected Jan. 6-13 from 989 registered Utah voters.

The overall poll question had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

More Republicans supported the practice than Democrats — 82 percent to 53 percent — although 62 percent of independents also backed it. Support from men also outnumbers that of women, 72 percent to 66 percent, according to poll data.

Urquhart seems undeterred by the results, even though he said he knows he may face similarly vigorous opposition from his legislative colleagues.

Utah's conservative, sometime libertarian-leaning politics may actually help pass a bill, he said. Conservatives don't believe that government does many things well and certainly not perfectly, he said.

"And yet we arrogate to ourselves the power over life and death," he said. "There's a serious disconnect there."

Other red states have already grappled with the issue and changed course, including Nebraska, which last year voted to repeal the death penalty, although a petition drive to reverse the vote has blocked the decision from taking effect until after the 2016 election.

Other states, including Montana and Ohio, have imposed moratoriums on capital punishment in the past year after they were unable to obtain the drugs used for lethal injection. Oklahoma has suspended the practice after the investigation into a botched execution found it has used the wrong drug.

That is not necessarily an issue in Utah, which last year reinstated the firing squad as the method of execution in the event that lethal injection is not available. Urquhart voted for the bill.

Additionally, the risk of false convictions — an estimated 4 percent of those on death row nationally are believed to be innocent — and the high cost of prosecution and appeals has also been a factor in many states.

In Utah, a 2012 study by legislative fiscal analysts found that, when compared to a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, the costs associated with capital punishment are significantly higher.

According to the report, from trial to execution — a period averaging 20 years — state and local governments spent more than $1.6 million per death-row inmate. Counties bear the brunt of that financial burden at about $1.1 million, the state report showed.

Cost is an issue to consider, Urquhart said, but it's not his only concern.

"There is no deterrence in the death penalty right now if you execute someone decades after the crime," he said. "So you're left with good old-fashioned vengeance. That standing alone is not adequate justification. That is the reality of what we are doing right now. It just doesn't make any sense."

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, shares Urquhart's concern for missteps by government that have left some wrongly executed and said he doesn't understand why some defendants are sentenced to death while others avoid the penalty.

"I probably have said this more quietly than publicly, but I don't support the death penalty," said Hughes, who expressed discomfort with a sentencing process that pits the families of victims against those of the accused. "How do you have a guy who may have killed his wife and unborn child and put her in a mattress and not have the death penalty and have other circumstances where crimes have been committed and you have sentenced them to death. There's an arbitrary feel to it."

Data from the Utah courts show the outcomes in these cases are mixed, with prosecutors who charged a capital crime often trading the punishment away in exchange for a plea that resolved the case.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, who has sponsored most of the recent legislation to increase the number and type of death penalty-eligible crimes in Utah, disagrees with those numbers.

According to Ray, the calculation doesn't consider the number of appeals filed by inmates sentenced to life without the possibility of a parole, nor factor in the cost of medical care used by aging inmates nearing the end of life.

"I think the costs kind of even out," he said, "when you factor in those types of situations."

And then, Ray said, there is the matter of justice.

"I don't now how you put a price tag on justice," he said. "[The death penalty] is not really a deterrent to murder … but it is justice and you need to have that form of justice available for certain individuals."

Ray said he believes Utah is one of the few states that gets the death penalty right, because the standards for prosecution are high and the punishment is used sparingly.

But, he said, he understands that individuals have strong personal philosophical differences on the issue.

"I'm open to the discussion," he said. "It's a fair discussion to have."

The Utah Justice Coalition, the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Libertas Institute, the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys all support Urquhart's effort.

Paul Boyden, director of Utah's Statewide Association of Prosecutors, said he could not comment on the bill because he has not yet seen it.

 

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