Utah lawmaker wants extensive study of death penalty costs vs. life without parole sentence

A state lawmaker wants a more in-depth study of how much it costs for capital punishment in Utah, and to determine whether it’s cheaper to instead give a prisoner a life sentence.

House Bill 70 would request legislative auditors to do a study of death penalty costs, including the amount of money spent by law enforcement, courts and others when a defendant’s execution is sought.

Legislative analysts in 2012 estimated that a death sentence and decades of appeals costs $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence. But bill sponsor Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, said that study was “very brief” and did not include many of the costs incurred by state and county personnel.

If HB70 passes, he said Tuesday during a House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, it would likely mean auditors would study the issue in-depth for nine or 10 months.

“You can be pro [death penalty] or you can be con,” he said Tuesday. “You don’t have to worry about that. All we’re talking about here is a fact-finding process.”

The bill passed out of the committee on Tuesday with little debate, and will now move forward for consideration by the entire House.

Handy proposed a similar bill last year to study death penalty costs, he said, but time ran out during the legislative session before it could be considered by state senators.

Utah legislators came close to abolishing the death penalty altogether in 2016 — but the bill never reached the House floor before the midnight deadline on the last night of session.

Criminal justice reforms groups have said another push to end capital punishment in Utah is likely during this legislative session — though a bill to do so has not yet been made public.

Of the nine men currently on Utah’s death row, two were originally convicted as long ago as 1985. All but one of the rest were convicted before 1999, although one case was retried in 2015 and resulted in a second capital murder conviction. All nine have ongoing appeals underway in state or federal court.

The last execution was carried out in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad for the 1984 murder of Michael Burdell, a Salt Lake City lawyer, during a failed escape attempt from the 3rd District courthouse.