Our death penalty system is also unfair to victims' families. Because of what I've observed through the years, I have become an advocate of full disclosure to victims' families, and feel that it's a moral — if not a legal — obligation of prosecutors who handle capital cases.
What I mean by full disclosure is this: After spending time building rapport with a victim's family, I would level with them about the capital case and appellate process, and tell them that I wanted them to know what I would want someone to tell me, if I were in their shoes.
And the truth is this: If a capital case goes to trial and the jury returns a verdict of death, that pronouncement is probably the last satisfaction the victim's family will get for years, if not decades. From that point on, the delays and uncertainties of the death penalty appeals process are likely to take a terrible toll, keeping the wound open and denying the victim's family any closure.
The "lucky" ones, in my opinion, are those whose cases result in life without parole, rather than the death penalty. When that happens, the murderers go to prison and, for the most part, no one hears about them again — and the victims' families are able to move on with their lives.
And there is one more compelling concern: No system of justice is perfect, and so it's possible that an innocent person could be convicted of capital murder, and wrongly executed. This is not currently a factor in Utah, because there is no credible claim of factual innocence for any of the individuals on death row. But there have been cases in other states of innocent people being convicted of capital murder, and being sentenced to death. I have met and become friends with some of those people, so it's not just theoretical to me.
When a mistake is made and the wrong person is sent to prison, there is at least the opportunity for exoneration and release. But when the wrong person is executed, there is no remedy or recourse, and the injustice is irrevocable.
For all of these reasons, I urge the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 189, and end the death penalty in Utah.
Creighton Horton worked in the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office and the Utah Attorney General's Office, prosecuting more than a dozen capital cases. He retired in 2009.