A group of Utah attorneys, advocates and state staff have spent the last year studying the state’s death penalty. The working group, created by Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, examined several areas, including costs, aggravating factors and public attitude.
The CCJJ report, released Friday, noted there were “fundamental difficulties inherent in analyzing death penalty policy.” The group did not make any recommendations or proposed changes to Utah’s current capital punishment system.
But a group called Utah Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty said the report shows that a significant amount of money has been spent seeking death sentences without much in return. They called on lawmakers to abolish capital punishment in Utah.
“This report should give pause to anyone who thought that because capital punishment is so rarely used in Utah that the cost of maintaining a death penalty would be negligible,” director Kevin Greene said in a statement. “... The millions of dollars that we have been wasting on the death penalty should either be returned to the taxpayers in the form of a tax cut or used for crime prevention or to help victims of crime.”
Here’s what the study found:
Cost estimates for the price of the death penalty in Utah are limited, the group noted. Legislative analysts in 2012 estimated that a death sentence and decades of appeals costs $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence.
Another more recent report estimated that Utah and its counties have spent almost $40 million to prosecute the 165 death-penalty eligible cases that have been filed in the last two decades. Only two cases in that time have resulted in a death sentence.
The CCJJ group also looked at studies in 15 other states — where costs ranged from a $136,000 estimate in Arizona in 2001 to a $1.5 million estimate in Nebraska in 2017 — and noted that Utah’s estimates are “consistent with national findings.” All of those estimates, the CCJJ report says, concluded that a life-without-parole sentence costs less than a death sentence.
Legislators are currently considering a bill requesting that legislative auditors conduct a more in-depth study of death penalty costs in Utah to determine whether it’s cheaper to instead give a prisoner a life sentence.
Utah currently has over 60 aggravating factors in the homicide law that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty — and state lawmakers are contemplating adding even more. At a recent legislative hearing, some expressed concern that Utah may have too many crimes that qualify for the death penalty, and that an appeals court could torpedo the capital punishment law for being too broad.
In the CCJJ report, the group noted that they could not come to an agreement about whether the number of aggravating factors should be limited. They noted that most states rarely remove aggravating factors — and instead have been adding more through the years.
The public’s attitude
The working group looked at several polls about Utahns’ attitude toward the death penalty, noting that there have been conflicting results. Two polls showed Utahns support the death penalty, while two others showed less support for execution in favor of life-without-parole sentences. The group concluded it was “probably reasonable to suggest simply that public support for the death penalty in Utah is declining over previous highs.”
Utah’s death row
Utah legislators came close to outlawing the death penalty 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 abolish it has not yet been public.
Since 2010, Utah prosecutors have filed 119 aggravated murder cases, according to Utah court data. Such cases can result in punishments of 25 years to life, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or death.
Only one of those cases — a retrial of a 1993 case — resulted in a death sentence.
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 Gardner’s failed escape attempt from the 3rd District courthouse.