Another push to end Utah’s death penalty is likely for the 2018 legislative session

Advocates for abolishing Utah’s death penalty system say they plan to push lawmakers to end capital punishment in the 2018 legislative session.

Legislators came close to stopping the punishment in 2016 — but the bill never reached the House floor before the midnight deadline on the last night of session.

Still, it was exciting to see it come that close, said Darcy Van Orden, the executive director of the Utah Justice Coalition. And at a Tuesday evening panel hosted by Young Americans for Liberty, Van Orden said they are planning to make another run at abolishing the death penalty in 2018. They already have their Senate sponsor, she told attendees, and are looking for someone in the House of Representatives to back the bill.

“More to come on this,” she told the audience.

A bill to abolish the death penalty wasn’t brought up in the 2016 session, though lawmakers then had considered studying the costs of the death penalty. The bill, however, never came up for a final Senate vote.

Legislative fiscal analysts estimated in 2012 that when compared to a sentence of life without parole, it costs an additional $1.6 million to handle appeals and costs of a death sentence over 20 years.

At the Tuesday panel held at the University of Utah, Van Orden was joined by other criminal justice reform advocates, all lamenting Utah’s — and the nation’s — death penalty systems.

It’s too expensive, said Kevin Greene, state director of the Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.

It unfairly targets minorities, according to Jean Hill, the director of the Diocesan Peace and Justice Commission of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

It’s too risky, said Jensie Anderson, a University of Utah law professor and legal director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project. The risk of executing someone who is innocent is far too great, she said.

And it’s too arbitrary, said Ralph Dellapiana, director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Whether a murderer faces the death penalty often depends solely on a prosecutor’s discretion, he said.

“It’s like being struck by lightning,” Dellapiana said. “It depends on your ZIP code on what is the possibility [a case is] going to result in a death penalty.”

All said that the better solution would be to make the most serious punishment in Utah life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“The other death sentence,” Dellapiana quipped.

Utah last carried out the death penalty in June 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad, drawing international attention to the state.

Nine men are on Utah’s death row, and all are in various stages of appeals in state or federal court. Two received the death penalty in the past decade: Floyd Maestas was sentenced to death in 2008, while Douglas Lovell was sentenced to be executed in 2015 after a retrial.

The next death penalty trial is scheduled for November, when a jury will decide whether Steven Crutcher should be executed for killing his cellmate at the Gunnison prison in 2013. He has pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, so the jurors at his trial will only be asked to decide which punishment he will face.