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McEntee: It may be time to reassess life in prison without parole

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Twenty years ago, Merrill Nelson was a freshman state representative who sponsored a successful bill that allowed sentences of life without parole in lieu of the death penalty for capital crimes. Nelson, who served in 1991 and 1992, is running for the Utah House again.

Two years ago, I wrote a column that, while expressing my horror of Ronnie Lee Gardner’s murders, advocated for the abolition of the death penalty in favor of life without parole.

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Now, in part because of a 2008 study co-written by a Utah Valley University professor, I’m wondering whether life without parole constitutes an even crueler punishment dubbed "death by incarceration."

This thinking is in no way intended to hurt those whose loved ones have been murdered, injured or otherwise harmed by violent criminals. Justice should be, but isn’t always, swift and sure. For example, Curtis Allgier, charged with killing Corrections officer Stephen Anderson five years ago, still hasn’t gone to trial.

But while most people under sentence of death can live for decades before their execution, no parole means a "civil death," UVU’s Sandra McGunigall-Smith and Robert Johnson of American University wrote in a 2008 piece in The Prison Journal.

The article is based on McGunigall-Smith’s unpublished doctoral research at Utah State Prison from 1997 to 2002. She spoke to seven of the 11 men then on death row and to 22 men serving life without parole.

She countered the common suspicion that life-without-parole prisoners would break rules, run rampant and resort to violence. On the contrary, they are as manageable as others, as evidenced by no disciplinary problems among the 22 she interviewed.

There are those who believe prisoners whose housing, meals, clothes are provided and who need not work for them are "coddled." But as one interviewee put it, the physical part of being in prison is easy.

"The emotional part is hard. I hate this place with a passion," he said. "I cannot stand it."

In 1999, the murderer Joseph Mitchell Parsons had dropped his appeals and was executed by lethal injection for stabbing a man who’d picked him up while he was hitchhiking.

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Before that, he told McGunigall-Smith that "nothing is worse than this. I wouldn’t change my mind. I’m already dead."

Daniel Medwed, a soon-to-be former law professor at the University of Utah, considers life without parole "extraordinarily cruel" and fails to "account for rehabilitation and change. They’ll be there forever."

Still, even a slim possibility of release can motivate inmates to behave, learn a trade or even a college degree. (Francis Bradshaw Schroeder, who had her son murder her father, left Utah State Prison with a degree.)

As Medwed points out, the state Board of Pardons "is not in the business of releasing violent offenders willy-nilly."

But maybe there’s a middle way.

Those sentenced to the death penalty have more resources to appeal their convictions, Medwed says. Some post-conviction legal teams resemble "defense attorneys on steroids."

"Death by incarceration is just as final, just as painful, and just as worthy of the careful scrutiny to which we subject traditional capital sentences," McGunigall-Smith and Johnson wrote.

More and more, modern forensic science is finding that some prisoners have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned. Of the 89 men serving life without parole at Utah State Prison, it’s possible one or more doesn’t deserve to die there.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @PegMcEntee.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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